Op-Ed: Congress Needs to Create a Guest Worker Program for Dairy Farms

Jon Slutsky and Susan Moore at La Luna Dairy.
Jon Slutsky and Susan Moore at La Luna Dairy. Courtesy of La Luna Dairy
As a husband-and-wife team that has run a dairy farm for 38 years, we depend heavily on immigrant workers to milk our 1,400 cows and care for our 3,000 animals. Work on our farm is a demanding job requiring hard physical labor and constant attention to animal needs, and is performed round-the-clock in all weathers and seasons, indoors and out. This requires a special, dedicated workforce, and our immigrant workers have always been this workforce.

Now, like most dairy farmers in Colorado, we struggle to find enough workers to keep our dairy running smoothly, no matter how many help-wanted ads we put out. We’re lucky to have 23 of the 28 full-time workers we need to keep our cows comfortable and healthy. The labor shortage is our biggest challenge in creating the best conditions for our cows to produce milk and a profit for the farm.

That’s why we’re asking Congress to create a guest worker program that meets the labor needs of dairy farms like ours. The current agriculture program only provides seasonal workers. But in dairy farming, we need workers 24 hours a day all year long. In most of the country, immigrants account for about half of dairy workers. In Colorado, the percentage is much higher. Our dairy has a group of skilled workers who have been with us for years. In the past, a steady stream of workers found us through word of mouth. But that supply is shrinking, especially now that the state unemployment rate is 3.2 percent.

We are a part of a bipartisan coalition called the Colorado Compact, with members from immigrant-dependent industries ranging from agriculture, hospitality and construction to financial and health-care services, which is  calling for smart immigration reform. The Compact supports national policies that would strengthen Colorado’s economy.

click to enlarge La Luna Dairy in Wellington faces a worker shortage. - COURTESY OF LA LUNA DAIRY
La Luna Dairy in Wellington faces a worker shortage.
Courtesy of La Luna Dairy
Dairy farming is a crucial part of Colorado’s $40 billion agriculture industry, and we’re proud to have adopted the kind of improvements in technology, production and animal health that enabled the state’s 160,000 milk cows to generate more than $754 million in income in 2017. (That’s up from nearly $594 million five years earlier, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's 2018 Colorado Bulletin.) Labor shortages should not hold us back from fulfilling our potential as an industry and providing our state and country with the dairy products that help make us food-secure.

Fruit, vegetable and other livestock farms are facing similar labor shortages and must often rely on skeleton crews. In some cases, they don’t have the labor to plant or harvest all of their crops. Meanwhile, as the local workforce ages out of the industry, fewer immigrants are coming to replace them. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of field and crop workers in Colorado, Nevada and Utah declined by nearly 37 percent, according to a report by New American Economy.

Our food supply depends on our immigrant workforce. Colorado farmers need a guest worker program that fills openings in a timely manner and allows our experienced workers to stay here to provide critical expertise and train new employees. All Colorado employers are in need of a modern immigration system to address long-term labor needs, whether we’re welcoming new foreign workers or empowering the 550,000 immigrants who already live and work here. Compact signers are committed to supporting legislation that prioritizes families, safe communities and the needs of businesses, while also protecting the interests of American workers. We’re delivering a strong message to our political leaders: Help us hire the people we need to help our state’s industries thrive, including the dairy farms that provide the meat and milk our country depends on.

Jon Slutsky and Susan Moore are the owners of La Luna Dairy in Wellington.

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