By Cassidy McDonald and Janet Stengle
Doug Leman was born in Francesville, Indiana, and he expects to die in Francesville, Indiana. His family has lived in Francesville for three generations: His parents were dairy farmers. And so were their parents — and their parents’ parents.
Naturally, Leman became a dairy farmer, too. His four sons grew up helping with his 800-cow herd and he planned to pass the farm on to them. “Our goal was to build something so our sons would have a future,” he said.
But six years ago, Leman made what he said was the toughest decision of his life: He said goodbye to his eight employees and sold the farm in northwest Indiana. He handed over his keys at midnight, and another farmer was in charge by sunrise that morning.
And just like that, Leman ended a line of four generations of dairy farmers.
His reason? He couldn’t make enough money to stay afloat. (Americans don’t drink as much milk as they used to.) He also had trouble finding reliable labor. The turnover for hiring and training local farmhands was too rapid, and subsequently blew his budget. Most of his workers were from Mexico.
“It’s not a glamorous job,” he said. “Dairying goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week… [Immigrants] are doing the jobs that nobody wants to do.”
For small farms in particular, profit margins are slim and demand for milk is on the decline. Immigrant labor accounts for 51 percent of all dairy labor, and dairies that employ immigrant labor produce 79 percent of America’s milk supply, according to a 2015 Texas A&M report.
If the country were to eliminate immigrant labor entirely, the Texas A&M report found, the United States would lose an estimated $32.1 billion in output, and retail milk prices would increase about 90 percent. (That means a typical $2.50 gallon of milk would cost $4.40.)
Leman said his immigrant workers have been like family to him. He worked with one man who had just arrived from Mexico with a 6-month-old son. Years later, when his son turned 16 and his friends began to get their driver’s licenses, he couldn’t. He wasn’t a citizen.
Leman was unsettled. “This is the only home he’s ever known,” he said. “These are human issues.”
Now, Leman is the executive director of Indiana Dairy Producers, an organization that unites the state’s dairy farmers. He says the industry, all over the state, is in economic trouble.
“Our dairy producers are sucking air again,” he said.
Leman is in favor of allowing more immigrants to legally work on farms. He considers himself a “frustrated Republican” when it comes to immigration policies, and he says the national conversation underestimates the complexity of the issue.
“Let’s let them come out of the shadows and become really involved community members — and they will be,” Leman said. “They want to just be normal human beings and be treated like that.”
Despite the increased focus on President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, immigration issues in the dairy industry are nothing new. John Rosenow is a Wisconsin farmer with 1,000 cows and 20 employees — 10 of whom are Mexican immigrants.
“I think the climate is about the same as it has always been,” Rosenow said. “I’m always really concerned. One of the things I worry about the most is immigration.”
He says his employees have all shown him official documents, but he’s still afraid immigration authorities will find errors in the papers and deport his workers. If that were to happen, he said, “I’d go out of business, because I won’t have people to milk the cows — and if I don’t have people to milk the cows, I can’t exist.”
Rosenow advocates the expansion of the H-2A visa program to the dairy industry. Currently, fruit and vegetable farms that hire seasonal workers can utilize the H-2A visa program. But dairy farms operate year-round, and cannot use those visas.
The H-2A Improvement Act, however, has been introduced to the Senate, and would allow foreign dairy workers to live in the US for an initial three-year period.
But not everyone believes this is the best arrangement. Dan Graff, a history professor and director of the Higgins Labor Program at Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, says that farming has historically relied on low-wage, immigrant labor.
When federal government began writing worker protection laws in the 1930s, southern Democrats agreed to support the laws if farm and domestic workers — primarily African-Americans and Mexican-Americans — were excluded from the provisions.
“That’s an ongoing issue that should inform the discussions we have today about a farm labor problem,” Graff said.
Dairy farm workers are paid an average wage of $11.54 per hour, according to the Texas A&M report, and Rosenow said he pays his workers over $40,000 per year with housing.
“We sort of lock ourselves into these economic arrangements where we then tend to think that they’re inevitable,” Graff said. “If you take one step back and say, well, we have a system where the labor force is highly vulnerable and underpaid… maybe we should rethink that whole sector if it has to rely on it that way.”
Step inside a milking station at the world’s largest robotic dairy, opened March 2017:
Leman believes the future of the industry lies with innovative farms like Homestead Dairy, a 4,000-cow operation in Plymouth, Indiana that houses the world’s largest robotic milker.
Homestead’s owner, Brian Houin, is obsessed with data. His cows wear ankle trackers, which Houin said function like Fitbits. Each calf is genetically tested at birth and the herd’s every move is stored on an app that Houin checks constantly.
But Homestead is an outlier in the dairy industry, well ahead of the technological curve. Houin’s efforts have yielded major cost savings that other dairies may never be able to access.
Watch how Homestead Dairy operates robotic milkers:
Leman, it seems, was forced to rethink the farm as a viable source of family income. Leman’s four sons now have steady jobs and are making more money than they ever would have on a farm, he said — a bittersweet outcome.
“It’s great, but it’s sad,” he said. “My youngest grandkids don’t really even know what a cow is.”