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Dairy Farmers, In Dire Need Of Workers, Feel Helpless As Immigration Reform Sours

Infrastructure Tribune News Service

Dairy Farmers, In Dire Need Of Workers, Feel Helpless As Immigration Reform Sours

Infrastructure, Diary, Farming, Upstate New York, Immigration, Undocumented Workers, Chobani, National News, Jobs

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOMER, N.Y. — When Mike McMahon’s Latino employees need to go to the bank, the pharmacy, or the grocery store, he makes sure someone drives them to town, waits while they run errands, and then brings them safely back to his dairy farm.

Even then, there is no guarantee law enforcement in their small, rural community won’t spot the workers, ask for their IDs, and put them on a path toward deportation if they cannot prove they are here legally. It is a risk that dairy farmers in this agricultural region have faced for years, but it is hitting them harder as immigration reform languishes in Washington and the nation’s demand for milk-heavy products like Greek yogurt soars.

“It’s just crazy,” said McMahon, who has several hundred cows at his farm more than 200 miles north of New York City.

“I’m a lifelong Republican,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m telling you, there are days when I think about switching.”

McMahon and other dairy farmers in central and upstate New York are in a quandary. On one hand, farms have thrived because of several factors, including the popularity of yogurt in recent years and drought in other milk-producing countries. At the same time, they are battling to find the reliable, year-round labor that 24/7 milking operations require.

Locals won’t do the dirty, manual jobs, farmers say, and immigration laws limit farmers to importing only seasonal agricultural employees. That does not help dairy farmers, who need year-round workers.

“The nation’s food system is at risk if we can’t get this fixed,” McMahon said one chilly day as scores of cows stood placidly in his farm’s milking parlor, which was pungent with the smell of manure. Workers went up and down the rows, checking to see that cows’ teats were attached to the metal milking machines.

In February, Dean Norton, a dairy farmer who is president of the New York Farm Bureau, traveled to Washington to argue for reform, including a guest-worker program catering to dairy farmers. At this point, though, given the partisan divide in Washington, few people expect to see change any time soon.

“Less than 15 percent, and that’s probably a high number,” Norton said when asked the chances of dairy farmers getting help from lawmakers.

The dairy farmers have seen some relief lately because of a slowdown in milk demand. They attribute this to several things, including the stronger dollar, which makes U.S. milk more expensive to overseas buyers, and stockpiles of milk from China. But fluctuations in milk prices and demand are cyclical, and Norton said as long as things like cottage cheese and yogurt grow in popularity, so will dairy farmers’ labor woes.

Without new immigration laws, he and other farmers say, the nation will lose dairy producers because farmers will switch to growing crops whose workers are eligible for temporary guest-worker visas.

“The U.S. dairy industry absolutely cannot survive without this,” said Dale, a dairy farmer who has moved toward robotic milking to avoid the labor problem. Like many dairy farmers, he did not want his full name or his farm’s name used because he was concerned that immigration officials would target his business.

Robotics are too expensive for most farmers; each machine costs about $250,000. They also cannot do the tasks that farmers say humans must handle, including cleaning teats and udders, and basic farm maintenance.

The problem has simmered for years, but it became more urgent with the Greek yogurt boom since yogurt maker Chobani’s arrival in upstate New York in 2005. Seven years later, New York was the nation’s yogurt capital, surpassing California to become the number one producer. That success was fueled in large part by the demand for Greek yogurt, which is denser and creamier than regular yogurt.

“You’ve got to have really, really good milk. That’s the key to great yogurt,” Chobani spokesman Michael Gonda said as he led a visitor through the Chobani factory in the hamlet of New Berlin.

In a 150,000-square-foot warehouse, which is kept at a steady 34 degrees, more than 1.5 million cases of yogurt in flavors ranging from the usual, like strawberry and blueberry, to the unusual, like green tea, waited to be shipped to retailers. Machines worked at dizzying speeds, slapping labels on white yogurt cups that made their way via conveyor belts into filling rooms. There, more machines squirted fruit into each cup and topped the fruit with dollops of creamy, white yogurt.

Chobani is now one of more than 40 yogurt producers in the state, and it is by far the largest. In 2000, the state had about 14 yogurt processing plants.

Dairy farmers say the yogurt boom has been a blessing. “It happened overnight,” said Dale, who watched the state’s dairy industry shrink through the 1980s and ’90s. “All of a sudden, New York had all these great yogurt things going on.”

He and McMahon said they tried to stick to local labor but succumbed to hiring migrant workers as their workloads increased.

Both men, and Norton, blame the problem more on attitudes than on economics. McMahon, for example, said his farmworkers all started at $2,000 a month and get a three-bedroom house plus utilities and other benefits. Even so, McMahon said attempts to hire locals have failed.

“Nobody wants to go out there and deal with cows and get manure up their sleeves,” said McMahon, who once advertised three straight weeks to find workers. Three locals applied, and only one worked out, he said. He now depends on Latino workers, most of them members of an extended family from Mexico.

Keeping them safe from immigration is a constant concern. Anyone obviously foreign-born sticks out in these largely white communities. The area is about 100 miles from the U.S.-Canada border, and there is a 360-bed immigration detention center in the region.

Mary Jo Dudley, who heads the Cornell Farmworker Program at Cornell University, said in a report in October that the state would need more than 2,200 additional farmworkers and about 100,000 more cows to ensure the steady production of sufficient milk to satisfy yogurt makers’ needs.

“Most people think of border and immigration issues as happening in the Southwest, but it’s a real issue up here,” said Dudley, who regularly visits dairy farms and hears stories from farmers and their workers about the latest detentions and scares.

McMahon told of one trusted worker, Antonio, who got word from his wife in Mexico that their young son had a brain tumor. He was desperate to visit them, so McMahon gave him some cash, wished him luck and let him go. Antonio was caught in Brownsville, Texas. By the time he was deported, his son had died.

McMahon hasn’t seen Antonio since and does not expect to, because of the cost of hiring coyotes to guide people over the southern border.

“I pray to God Jeb Bush is our next president,” McMahon said, “because he’s married to a Mexican woman. He gets it.”

Photo: Tina Susman via Los Angeles Times/TNS



  1. bobnstuff April 2, 2015

    How could this be true? I read all the time from the right that unemployment is really 22% and people can’t find work. These illegals are taking the jobs away from Americans.
    Yah right. There is a labor shortage in our country and unless the Republicans pass a new law it is going to get worse. Business’s don’t like breaking the law but if given the choose of that or going out of business they must choose.

    1. Un Ruley April 2, 2015

      Let’s face it: People are lazy and get paid to stay that way. Reduce welfare handouts and let the losers sink or swim by their own merits. I have 100 acres that I would like to make more productive. I can provide free housing and utilities plus wages for someone to work my land. All I get are dried out druggies and promises. But they all go back to the free handouts and living in a building with no running water or electricity.

      1. bobnstuff April 2, 2015

        You just proved my point, all the good workers have jobs and all that’s left are people who you wouldn’t want working for you. Just so you know public assistance doesn’t give you enough money to do a lot of drugs. Most of the people who get assistance are either working or can’t work. When drug testing is done on people applying for assistance only about 3.8% fail the test.

        1. Un Ruley April 2, 2015

          That’s why crime is so high. Druggies need cash to buy their fix. I say, deny them any medical treatment after the first relapse. Let them suffer or die. I don’t care. I’d rather my $$ go to a hungry kid or cataract surgery for a senior. There are still people that can and are willing to work, but continuing to spoon feeding them with entitlements and telling them it isn’t there fault will ruin them. Time for a job core.

          1. bobnstuff April 2, 2015

            Very little of your money goes to drug treatment. Very few people die from coming off drugs and you would be surprised at how many junkies you know. Drug addiction knows no class or race, the rich have as much of a problem as the poor, maybe more since money is easier to come buy. Drug addiction will not get you SSI and the little they get in food stamps buys few drugs. Able bodied people can’t get most entitlements for any length of time. Most of the crimes done by junkies is shop lifting and as long as pawn shops buy gift cards it will continue. You may also be surprised to know that many states have job core and job training programs for the unemployed and in some cases you must sign up for it to get aid. Ever heard of workfare. The amount of miss information around the drug problem and welfare is amazing.

          2. bobnstuff April 2, 2015


            This one of many places to get the facts on welfare.

          3. hicusdicus April 3, 2015

            You are naive. Try being a rent collector for 8 years in the black ghetto’s of 5 th ward i Houston. That’s where the facts are.

          4. Un Ruley April 2, 2015

            The stats are different across the country. Druggies steal around here-like break into homes, cars etc. Entitlements are paid out to able bodied persons on a regular basis. The kindly medical profession is always willing to assist in disability claims. There are quite a number of “functional” addicts, holding jobs raising families, going to church. They do drain society with missed days of work, low grade performance or lots of medical issues. I am always amazed at the 20 and 30 somethings using an EBT card to buy a cart full of junk food. I also know too many grandparents and parents supporting non-working adult children–the ones that have used up all their time on unemployment, temporary disability and the like.

          5. bobnstuff April 2, 2015

            So do you want there looser working for you or would you rather have a man just trying to make a better live for his family? As I said all the good worker already have jobs and all that’s left are the people who can’t do the job. If you want to cut down on welfare cheats quit cutting down the number of people working in the welfare offices and let them do their job. Right nowmost welfare caseworker have between 800 and 1000 cases. They are lucky to keep up with the paperwork and have little to no time to check it. Hire more people to spend less money. Get a guest work program in place to get the labor we need.

          6. hicusdicus April 3, 2015

            Cut back on both of them they feed off each other.

          7. Un Ruley April 5, 2015

            Hunger is a motivating force. There are still plenty of people paid to not work, but are more than capable of doing a good job. Motivation is the key.

          8. bobnstuff April 5, 2015

            I believe that there are very few people who could work that you would want working for you, You can
            motivate them all you want but they are still losers. You can’t use whips on them or chains so you aren’t likely to get much out of them. I will let you hire them and they can work with you but I would rather have some one who willing works.

            If you see someone using a ETB card it my not be welfare, My grandchildren child support comes on a ETB card. Food stamps only give about $1.50 per meal per person. Not much
            steak with that much money. Remember one thing, just because you can’t see a disability doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Judge not less you be judged.

            Just how much of the federal budget goes to welfare. The number is less the 6%, We give more money to corporations that don’t need it then to the poor. I could go on about the break down of where the money goes but if you look you will find that the lazy welfare bum is mostly a myth started by President Reagan.

          9. Un Ruley April 5, 2015

            There are plenty of people that deserve food stamps. And more that need them. But welfare cheating is still ferocious. I can hire a loser to work; I also know the risks and limitations involved. I spent too many years working with physically handicapped people to pass judgement on anyone lacking skills, motivation or average intelligence. There is something for everyone to do. I choose to pursue the lesser qualified, if for no other reason is that there are a lot of them out there that can work for a few days before drifting off.

          10. bobnstuff April 6, 2015

            I have stated earlier, if you want to stop welfare cheats you need more welfare case works. If you want to stop crime you put more policeman on the streets, same idea. We have
            cut back on case works to a point that they haven’t even seen their clients ever. A system that’s only there to give out money isn’t the solution to the problem. Our whole approach to aid to the people in need is a mess. I dislike people who game the system but we make it to easy for them.

            That being said it still doesn’t get the New York farmers help milking their cows. Even if we had every able bodied person working there would still be a shortage in a number of fields. The company I work for tries to hire 20 to 30 people every spring in our store, about a third will become year round full time employees. Five years ago we had good hard working
            people come in. now we don’t. Most years we lose one or two to thedrug test, this year we lost two the first week and we will only be able to hire about half as many as we would like. Most of the new hires will be over 60 and only want part time. I have no problem with the older employee being one myself except for there are times when there is lifting involved. When we get the good strong younger work our customers and vendors steal them.

            If you are young strong and willing to work hard you can have your chose of jobs. Not everything can be done by robots and computers. If filling these jobs mean bringing in guest works then lets do it legally and stop making criminals out of our

          11. hicusdicus April 3, 2015

            That’s for sure and it is a lot worse than you ever dreamed.

        2. hicusdicus April 3, 2015

          Yes they do. I have seen it.

          1. bobnstuff April 3, 2015

            So, how many times did you run it these peoples case workers, you know the people who are suppose to check up
            on things? How many of these people did you turn into welfare? Did you do your part to make the system work? I have stated that we need more people checking up on those people to stop the fraud. In my county you must ask for a case worker to help you and then you will get someone from a privite company who contracts with the county. This system is as broken as most of our government. In the name of saving money we are destroying our country. We need to invest in the country just like you should invest in a company if you want it to grow and prosper.

  2. edwardw69 April 2, 2015

    McMahon just painted a target on his back.

  3. Un Ruley April 2, 2015

    The employer of the illegals provides boarding and transportation along with wages. Is there any reason an Americans can’t be treated the same way? But that would be demeaning wouldn’t it? No doubt there are umpteen laws, regulations, civil rights acts, etc. that would make this all but impossible to treat citizens this way. And, of course, the entitlement programs don’t require one to work. Cut off bennies to the able bodied, let them live in group housing (dorms work-every college has them), and earn the right to eat and have a roof over their head.

  4. Lee Christmas April 3, 2015

    In June, 2002 Larry Baca was killed by illegal aliens smuggling other illegal aliens into these united states.


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