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Oregon dairy taps into refugee workforce

Alisa Anderson Published on 21 September 2009
Editor’s note: The following story is the first in a series of three articles reviewing the use of international refugees as dairy workers.

Walt Guterbock, the livestock manager at Threemile Canyon Farms, was driving to work in his white pickup one day. While listening to the NPR radio station, he happened to hear an ad from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), nearly 270 miles from his dairy in Boardman, Oregon.

The IRC office in Boise was looking for employers who were willing to hire refugees that they had helped bring into the country. Guterbock and Rose Corral, the human resources manager at Threemile Canyon Farms near Boardman, Oregon, had been looking for reliable, legal workers to hire at the Columbia River Dairy, a branch of Threemile Canyon Farms.



They were especially in need of milkers, as they had a high employee turnover rate in that position. The refugees sounded like a viable option. And to Guterbock, their situation resonated closely with one he was familiar with.

“Being the son of refugees, I can identify very strongly with these people. My parents were political refugees from Germany. They left Germany in the ‘30s; they went to Turkey; then they came here in 1949,” Guterbock says.

Guterbock contacted Lana Whiteford, the employment services specialist at the IRC office in Boise. Whiteford picked some people for Corral to interview, “and it went from there,” Guterbock says.

A year later, there are now 27 refugees from Uganda, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma and Iraq employed at the dairy. The refugees left their countries to escape ethnic cleansing or political persecution.

According to Whiteford, refugees have to have a well-founded fear of persecution before the U.S. allows them in. Guterbock says there was no more additional paperwork than when hiring anybody else.


Before coming to the U.S., the refugees go through a rigorous screening and examining process to become legal, and usually permanent, U.S. citizens.

“The dairy industry is relying on a workforce that is 90 percent illegal immigrants, and with looming immigration reform I think it is in their best interest to start integrating a legal workforce. It looks like raids will decrease or stop with the Obama administration, but he is going to switch over to an employer penalization system.

"It’s such a huge risk for dairies to rely on an illegal workforce. And it’s a pity because the U.S. government wants the milk to be produced, but they don’t want to provide them with workers. They’re not going to grant amnesty it seems, they’re not going to give them a visa program. But I think that a lot of people are overlooking the fact that there are 70,000 to 80,000 refugees a year coming into this country, many with agricultural experience, all of them needing jobs, and all willing to work,” Whiteford says.

Refugee workers have proven to have higher retention rates. The dairy keeps 160 employees to run the 16,500-cow operation.

Previous to hiring the refugees, they had a 60 percent negative turnover rate at the dairy. Now they are down to a 40 percent negative turnover rate. Guterbock says he and all the supervisors have been very pleased with them.

“Their attitudes are outstanding. They are quick learners. By the time they’ve been here two to three weeks, they know what is going on,” Corral says.


Radha Chapagai from Bhutan has been working at the dairy since last year, and although he had no prior experience, he is already able to do all the dairy’s A.I. work.

“They’re committed to the job and to doing it right, and they seem to be happy to be here. They’ve shown a lot of adaptability and willingness to work with others,” Guterbock says.

Whiteford says the supervisors have to hold some of the refugees back with a stick when there is an extra milking shift to fill. The IRC gives the refugees basic job training and cultural orientation when they arrive in the U.S.

Although some of the refugees already speak a little English, they’re all required to go through a three-month English course. Guterbock says that the struggle they sometimes have to communicate can be one of the greatest challenges when hiring the refugees.

However, the IRC tries to get businesses to hire groups of refugees from the same ethnicity. In every ethnic group that the dairy has hired, there is at least one person who can speak English well. These group “leaders” are often asked to translate for the others.

Some of the refugees learned English before coming to the U.S. Others, such as those who come from Africa, have already learned two to three languages while growing up and can learn languages quickly. Most of them are picking up some Spanish as well.

The dairy has also been offering an English class for the refugees to attend after work. But that hasn’t met with much success.

“The turnout has been pretty poor. I don’t know quite the answer. I think a lot of it is that people don’t feel like going to class after they’ve finished work. They want to get home and eat. And sometimes there are carpooling issues. If they stay late for class, they lose their ride home. Another issue is that we have people at many different levels. We have some who are quite advanced, and we have some beginners who don’t know how to read and write in any language. I’m not sure how we’ll solve that problem,” Guterbock says.

Recently, the IRC in Boise has also been working with the University of Idaho to train the refugees to milk and care for cows before they go to work at the dairy. They attend a five-hour-long course and at the end they receive a certificate of completion.

“I think the universities, especially ones that focus on dairy production, offer similar things which are mostly for Hispanic clients, but they modify it for others. These programs will become more and more valuable as immigration policy changes,” Whiteford says.

His is the first refugee agency Whiteford is aware of that has worked with dairies to train the refugees for them.

“Every dairy is different, but I think this is an adaptable program. As long as they are clear with what their needs are and the agency can understand what they want, I think it can be duplicated. So it’s just about getting an idea of what the dairy wants and when they want it,” Whiteford says. PD