By Jacob Kushner
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
About this series
This is Part 5 of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Dairyland Diversity project, exploring the increased role of immigrants on Wisconsin dairy farms.
Jump to sidebar: State plays a limited role in dairy expansions
Throughout America’s Dairyland, at places such as the dairy farms of James Winn in southwestern Wisconsin and Mike and Sandi Zirbel near Green Bay, farmers say they need immigrants to operate their growing farms.
As Wisconsin dairy farms expand, farmers have become increasingly reliant upon immigrant workers to milk the cows and clean the barns.
Immigrants make up nearly 60 percent of the work force at the state’s largest dairy farms, those with more than 300 cows, while just 20 percent of workers at smaller dairies are immigrants, according to a 2009 University of Wisconsin-Madison study.
Farmers are “looking for low-cost reliable workers,” said Brad Barham, a dairy researcher with the UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies, which conducted the study of immigrants’ roles on dairy farms.
“It’s met by immigrants or second-generation Americans.”
The demand for immigrant dairy workers is expected to remain strong as dairy producers and processors, who invested an estimated $1 billion in modernization projects from 2003 to 2007, have forecast similar expenditures in upcoming years.
But many — no one know how many — of Wisconsin’s immigrant dairy workers are in the United States illegally. Farmers say they follow federal rules to ensure their workers are here legally. Immigration experts say the system doesn’t screen out all undocumented workers.
And farmers say the immigrants, most of whom are from Mexico, are now critical to their operations.
“If I couldn’t have my Hispanic labor, I’d sell the dairy tomorrow,” said Lafayette County farmer Winn, whose work force of 23 includes 16 Hispanic immigrants.
“I couldn’t do it without them.”
About 5,300 immigrants, 40 percent of Wisconsin’s total dairy work force, are employed by dairy farms, according to the study. A decade ago, immigrants composed just 5 percent of the dairy work force.
This rapid shift toward immigrant labor on dairy farms follows earlier labor patterns, the study said, such as the reliance upon Latino immigrants in the Upper Midwest’s vegetable farms since at least the 1930s, and the employment of immigrants in the region’s meatpacking and food-processing industries throughout the 20th Century.
To increase production, farmers are adding animals to their herds or milking three times a day instead of two.
These strategies “require more workers,” the study noted.
Immigrants also tend to work for lower wages than do native-born workers. The study found that in a review of pay for comparable jobs, immigrant dairy workers earned about $9 to $12 an hour, and those figures tended to run about $1 lower than what native-born workers earn.
“The lower wage seen for immigrant workers may be related to language ability and legal vulnerabilities,” the study reported.
Getting bigger, one step at a time
By the time Green Bay dairy farmers Mike and Sandi Zirbel more than doubled their operation to 200 cows in 1990, Spanish-speaking foreigners were already knocking on their door asking for work. The Zirbels soon realized they needed help keeping up with the larger herd, so they decided to give immigrant labor a try.
The farm, which has been in the family for nearly a century, formerly had fewer than 80 cows, milked by family members and local workers, including neighbors and teenagers.
The Zirbels built a “double 12″ milking parlor, in which workers connect milking equipment to a group 24 cows.
Twenty years later, they employ six immigrant workers to help milk their herd of 630.
With its increased capacity, through a second expansion completed in 2008, the farm provides employment to additional family members — Jordan, the couple’s oldest son, who wanted to farm after he graduated from high school; their daughter, Chelsea, who graduated from college with a degree in dairy science; and her husband, Kris, who also holds a dairy science degree.
“Now we’ve got three energetic young adults that want to work the family farm,” Sandi Zirbel said.
Motivations differ, but expansion is often the answer
While most Wisconsin dairy owners first hired immigrants after expanding their farms, their reasons for expanding differ.
In Jefferson County, located between Milwaukee and Madison, Waterloo dairy farmer Charles Crave turned to hired labor because his family was tired of a lifestyle that revolved entirely around work.
“As the family changed, the need for the labor force changed also,” Crave said. “My wife was no longer willing to tolerate working six and a half days a week, 14 hours every day, and neither was I.”
So, 15 years ago, the Crave Brothers farm hired the first of many Hispanic immigrants.
“After we saw their dependability, we never looked back,” said Crave, whose work force of 30 now includes about 15 Hispanic immigrants. Crave said he expects that his dairy business — and his immigrant workforce — will continue to grow.
Winn, the Lafayette County farmer, recalled that after expanding his dairy farm, he initially hired only local workers.
But there were problems.
“I’d get a phone call every Saturday and Sunday morning that somebody wasn’t gonna hit the five o’clock shift,” Winn said. “So I gotta scramble to try to find somebody to cover for them, or 95 percent of the time I’m the one that covered for them.”
On the western edge of the state in Buffalo County, Waumandee farmer John Rosenow saw expanding his dairy as an entrepreneur’s way to move up in the world.
“What always bothered me is that I did just as well as my sisters in school, and they went on to a medical profession, and they made more money than I was farming,” Rosenow said. “I didn’t think I had to accept that because I was a farmer, I had to accept a lower standard of living.”
After a 1989 barn fire decimated his dairy, Rosenow decided to rebuild at a level that would achieve the lifestyle he dreamed about.
“After a considerable amount of research, we decided that if we’re going to have the standard of living that we want, we’re going to have to milk more cows,” he said.
Rosenow increased his herd from 100 to 300 cows. In 1997 he entered into a partnership with his neighbor, Loren Wolfe, whose 100-cow dairy needed new equipment. The two farmers joined their dairies, increasing their combined herd size to its current 550 cows.
Like other farmers, Rosenow sought to hire local residents to help run the bigger farm. But local labor was hard to come by. So Rosenow made a phone call to an agricultural employment agency. Two days later, Manuel Perez arrived in Waumandee.
“Out of desperation, and unwillingly, we hired our first Mexican and found an incredible work ethic, incredible reliability, no problem getting people to come and work,” Rosenow said. “As more local people quit, we would replace them with Mexican labor.”
Rosenow estimates that since 2003, he’s continuously employed eight Mexicans to milk his herd and perform other tasks on the farm. Rosenow says his expansion, made possible by the help of immigrant laborers, allowed him to achieve prosperity.
Said Rosenow: “I make more money than my sisters, I’m doing what I love to do. I have spare time.”
The moves toward bigger farms are sometimes controversial.
One of the state’s largest dairies, the Rosendale Dairy in Fond Du Lac County, is about to double its operation from 4,000 cows to 8,000. The expansion comes after the state Department of Natural Resources approved a water protection permit in January — a decision that critics say may lead to environmental hazards associated with manure runoff from the farm.
For many, getting bigger is the only way
Some experts say there are alternatives to expansion to keep Wisconsin’s dairy farms profitable. UW Extension agricultural agent Paul Dyk said that too often, dairy owners buy into to the notion that getting bigger is the only way.
Dyk and Irv Possin, executive director of a state program that gives farmers financial incentives to expand, agree that viable alternatives to expansion exist, such as finding a niche market within the industry — going organic, becoming a seedstock producer or entering the compost business.
Rosenow is composting manure at his farm — and he said his compost business now has a greater profit margin than his milk production.
Another popular alternative to expansion can reduce technology and machinery on the farm, and prevent farm owners from entering into significant debt required by most expansions. Managed grazing takes cows out of their stall barns and back into pastures to graze for a portion of their food. A small UW-Madison study of 31 dairy farms found grazing operations earned twice as much income per cow as similar confinement farms.
Despite higher income, grazing operations are limited by the large amount of land they require.
The bottom line for many farmers is that alternatives to expansion, such as grazing, simply do not offer as much total income potential as a larger farm, according to Barham, the dairy researcher with the UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies.
“If you’re only at a certain scale you’re only at a certain income level. It’s not the rate of return, but just the amount of income,” Barham said. “Small farmers are not changing because production is inefficient— it’s just seeking a larger scale to reach an income that they want.”
Expect even more large farms – and more immigrants
It should come as no surprise that in Wisconsin, the dairy industry means business. In 2007, dairy accounted for $4.6 billion of Wisconsin’s $9 billion in agricultural sales – or just over half, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture.
The rapid arrival of immigrants to work in Wisconsin’s dairy industry is changing more than just the dairy workforce — it’s also transforming the makeup of many rural Wisconsin communities. Ten years ago, for example, Lafayette County was home to 92 Hispanics, according to the 2000 census. The estimate rose to 226 — an increase of 146 percent — by 2008, and some residents think the actual number is much higher.
“In the last five, six years, this area has grown by leaps and bounds as far as welcoming the Hispanic community,” Winn said.
“There’s grocery stores in Darlington, there’s restaurants in Darlington — Mexican — and we didn’t have those before. They’ve been a huge boost to our economy.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media.
This story has been corrected. The first names of two dairy farmers were incorrect. Their correct names are Charles Crave, not Chris, and Jordan Zirbel, not Jason.