Two days of panel discussions and presentations focusing on the future of agriculture’s workforce took place at the Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance’s 2016 annual meeting in Albany on Feb. 2 and 3.
One topic explored was the problem with immigration reform and how it concerns the Ag industry. Reports of dairy herd managers and other farm employees being suddenly removed from farms by local authorities has been an ongoing issue for farms across the country, and New York farmer Jeff True of Perry, Wyoming County, NY, spoke to the large audience about “what goes on behind the scenes” on his farm.
True, who serves as a national director for the Brown Swiss Association, farms an 1,100-cow dairy with his brother and two nephews. “We have 22 employees; three American employees and 15 Hispanic — foreign workers — employed on the farm,” he stated.
Within this Hispanic population, all daily operations of the dairy are performed. The herdsman has been employed there for 15 years, the cow feeder for 16 years, the calf feeder for 15 years and the farm manager for 14 years. The remainder of the staff has been employed there between 6 months and 13 years. “We really rely on the foreign labor force.”
The farm provides housing, utilities, basic medical care, transportation as needed for appointments, shopping, etc., with wages of $9 to $15 per hour.
True said on holidays and weekends the workers are only ones on the farm — keeping the farm running. “All of this sounds well and good,” True said. “Except, what happens when you get a phone call from the police saying they picked up one of your workers for the crime of having no ID on him? Of course, they’re awful sorry, but they’re obligated to turn him over to the government authorities because they’re sure he’s here illegally.”
True reported several incidents including an incident where authorities took his herdsman, the 8-month pregnant wife of the assistant herdsman and two other workers, who were “presumed illegal.”
“Well, like every other dairy farmer I have a lot of money sitting around,” True said sarcastically. “So I had no problems coming up with $30,000 that day to post bond on them to get them back.”
True said, “Through begging, borrowing and so forth, we were able to get them released and back on the farm.”
“Now we have 16 employees that are caught in a cat and mouse game, what do we do with these people? What do I do with them? What’s the government do with them? The government says ‘deport them. We don’t want them here.’ The left wing says ‘they’re stealing American jobs, so get rid of them’. Their lawyer and myself are asking that any decisions are delayed until immigration reform happens — but, I don’t think we’re going to live that long. So here we are and I’ve still these cows to take care of.”
Speakers Tonya Van Slyke, Executive Director of the Northeast Dairy Producers Association (NEDPA), and Elizabeth Wolters, Associate Director of National Affairs at New York Farm Bureau (NYFB), also spoke about immigration reform.
Wolters explained efforts by NYFB to develop legal means for farms to hire foreign employees.
“Every year United States farms faces a shortage of workers,” reported Wolters. She said two reasons topped the list for this shortage including a lack of local people willing to do farm work, which causes farmers to look elsewhere for workers, and the lack of a good “guest worker” program to support outside workers for dairy farms. “Reforming the immigration system will definitely help ensure that there is a stable supply of workers.”
Wolters outlined strategic steps that FB has in place for 2017. The success of some of these steps will depend on the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.
Van Slyke described the industry-wide, collaborative, work group called the Agriculture Workforce Development Coalition (AWDC), which was formed to address ongoing employment educational needs to prepare and retain skilled farm labor. VanSlyke explained the goal of the Coalition is to seek legislation that ensures America’s farms, ranches and other agricultural operations, have access to a stable and skilled workforce, while promoting a supportive workplace for the employees.
“A proactive approach is the right approach,” VanSlyke stated.
Jason Karszes, Cornell University Pro Dairy Senior Extension Associate, outlined a proactive approach to obtaining and maintaining Ag industry workers. “Our larger farms are increasing,” said Karszes. “We need to start thinking about our labor as an asset and talk about it as an investment area. We’re actually going to invest time, energy and effort into developing our people within our business.”
Management and leadership training and development are key areas and Karszes commented that ongoing education is never complete. Continued learning of skills, exposure to new experiences, building confidence and keeping an open mind, all combine to equal success with employees.
Karszes pointed out that leadership programs for youth in Ag are essential for attracting local youth into the agricultural workforce — however, attracting today’s youth is not an easy step. Emphasizing new technology and the need for young people to acquire technical skills needed to operate modern tractors and other equipment, as well as robotics now used in the industry, is one way get them interested.
“We need to continue to tell our story,” Karszes said.