For nearly five years, dairy farmers have seen the price of milk drop, forcing thousands of farms across the country to go out of business. Now, the survival of many dairy farms hinges on increasing milk production, and that increasingly depends on the immigrants who do the work that Americans won’t.

“What you do is increase productivity because your income is volume times price,” said John Rosenow, a dairy farmer in Cochrane, Wisconsin, who employs 10 immigrants from Veracruz, Mexico. He said he loses money everyday because his cost of production exceeds the income he receives from milk sales.  

Immigrant workers have long been the backbone of the dairy industry, accounting for about 51 percent of labor on dairy farms, one survey found. As farmers weather tough times — worsened by tariffs imposed by China and Mexico last year — they increasingly rely on immigrants to stay afloat.

More than 2,700 dairy farms closed in 2018, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. When immigrants were let go as a result of farms going under, other farmers quickly hired them, Rosenow said.

“Some of these workers have been here for several years,” said Bob Cropp, professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “They’re very dependable.”

One of them is Roberto Tecpile, 39, who has worked on Rosenow’s farm for four years. Tecpile, who entered the country 20 years ago, milked cows for a year before becoming a handyman doing a variety of tasks.

“This morning I fed the little heifers,” Tecpile said.

Tecpile said he values his job because he earns more in the United States than he would in Mexico.

“You work all day, and you are going to make like $15,” he said, adding that he can earn that much on Rosenow’s farm in less than two hours.

Even though he earns more than he would in Mexico, Tecpile said in a year he plans to quit and return home, because he hasn’t seen his wife and three children in almost five years. When Tecpile leaves, Rosenow said, he’ll be able to find another worker because there isn’t a shortage of immigrants.

Early in the Trump presidency, that wasn’t the case. Droves of immigrants who feared deportation returned to Mexico. That created a shortage of workers on dairy farms that were already struggling. Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and a spike in deportations nationwide influenced workers’ decisions to flee, leaving business owners scrambling to fill positions.     

“Everybody was running about two people short, or 10 percent short, of the number of employees they wanted, but then nothing happened and then people started coming back to the United States,” Rosenow said.

Dairy farmers have long struggled with labor. Years ago, immigrants would enter the country illegally, work on a farm and then leave, only to return once again. Farmers had to constantly hire workers to replace the ones who left. Now, many workers stay for extended periods of time, reflecting a shift in immigration policy toward tougher enforcement, said Thomas Maloney, an agricultural economist at Cornell University.   

All along, Maloney said, immigrants intended to stay for short periods, just hoping to send money to their families in Mexico. But when they became satisfied by their compensation, they stayed longer. They continued to say that they wanted to leave, but their actions said otherwise. They continued to stay because they knew if they left, they would have difficulty returning.  

“On the border it’s too hard for right now,” Tecpile, the immigrant worker, said. “You have to pay like $10,000 to come up here.”

Besides working more to increase production, not much has changed for immigrants on dairy farms. Rosenow, the farmer, said since milk price has dropped, the effects on his workers have been frozen wages. “There’s no money to make raises, and the employees realize that,” he said.   

In June, when dairy exports were hit by retaliatory tariffs from China and Mexico, sales were slashed in those major markets, hurting the owners of dairy farms. For laborers like Tecpile, tariffs and low milk prices only mean more milk needs to be sold. And that means they have more work to do.

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