The debate over immigration reform is heating up in scores of Minnesota crop fields, livestock barns and farm homes. As Minnesota Milk Producers Association President Patrick Lunemann puts it, “we’re struggling to find labor.” Lunemann employs immigrants as part of the work force on his 700-cow dairy farm near the central Minnesota town of Clarissa. He’s seen an estimate that half the nation’s dairy cows are milked by immigrant labor, and it’s about the same in the state as well.
The nation’s largest agricultural organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation, launched a major effort this month to influence the immigration debate. The group is pushing for a guest worker program to help furnish the labor for California vegetable farms to Midwest dairy operations. The farm bureau commissioned a study by the World Agricultural Economics and Environmental Services group. The February study examined scenarios ranging from tougher immigration enforcement to a full-fledged guest worker program along the lines of what the farm bureau wants.
The study found that tougher enforcement would nearly end undocumented immigrant farm labor, about 17 percent of the nation’s agricultural work force. The study said without those workers, farm costs will rise, eventually hiking food prices by as much as six percent. The price increases stay in the one to two percent range with a guest worker program, the study concluded.
Groups opposed to reform often argue that immigrant labor tends to lower average wages for everyone. The argument goes that by accepting entry level jobs like those typically found in the farm sector, immigrants touch off a downward wage spiral. The theory is that employers will constantly lower their wage offer because they think immigrants have few options and will take what they can get. That argument is likely to be applied to the farm sector’s push for reform as well.
For Patrick Lunemann, the need for reform is real. The Minnesota dairy farmer said he’s always “one step away” from a labor crisis on his farm, and it’s a constant struggle to find competent workers.
“We need a pathway for people to have visas to come here and work,” Lunemann said.