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Texas’ booming dairy industry needs labor – but must make sure it’s legal

By Darren Turley, TAD executive director

Southwest Dairy Day earlier this month featured a fascinating look at the automated milking system at T&K Dairy near Snyder. These “robots” – which milk the cow, push feed down the lane and perform other tasks – could be an answer to the labor shortages that continue to plague the dairy industry and other areas of agriculture.

As milk production is strong and continuing to grow in Texas, more than ever our state’s dairy farmers need a reliable source of labor to continue to operate at their full capacity. I often hear Texas dairy farmers talk about how difficult it is to hire adequate labor to manage today’s large, modern farms.

But our dairy farms also need and must have a legal source of labor.

Farmers – including dairy farmers – depend on immigrant workers to fill labor-intensive farm jobs that American-born workers are unwilling to fill, no matter how bad the economy gets. About half of all workers on U.S. dairy farms are estimated to be immigrants.

Recently we’ve seen immigration audits at two Texas dairies (that we know of) by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As of press time, we don’t know the outcome of those audits.

Should any violations be found, it could mean fines or a loss of farm employees. Replacing that employee – who has knowledge of your farm and its practices – can be a difficult task.

Please take time to review your employee records and make sure they are in good standing. You never know when federal agents could show up at your farm and ask to see those records.

Past ICE audits on Texas dairy farms have found that most dairy farmers are keeping their I-9 documentation in good order, but sometimes that documentation has errors.

So how should you prepare for an ICE audit or even a raid? Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has an excellent booklet available online and free, “The Difference between an ICE Raid and an ICE Audit: Are You Prepared?” The publication was produced by Dr. Ellen R. Jordan, former professor and Extension dairy specialist, and Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, an attorney and an assistant professor and Extension specialist.

The bottom line takeaway for dairy farmers is that preparation is key. The authors also say that, when facing an audit or raid, it’s essential for the employer to:

I encourage every dairy farmer to get and read a copy of the publication.

Meanwhile, the Texas Association of Dairymen closely monitors all policy debate on the immigration issue, whether in the Texas Legislature or in the U.S. Congress.

TAD advocates immigration reform that takes the burden of policing workers’ eligibility off the shoulders of dairy farmers and does not restrict access to a much-needed labor pool.

TAD has met with members of Congress to discuss labor and immigration issues. The Texas delegation realizes that ICE audits disrupt business continuity, and they understand the significance of dairies to the economies of their local communities.

Also on the federal level, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) works with Congress and other regulators on labor and immigration issues affecting our industry.

NMPF supports the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 4916), a bipartisan immigration bill that advances agriculture immigration reform sponsored by Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-WA). NMPF worked closely with the bill’s authors and other members of Congress to develop the measure.

The legislation works to address the dairy industry’s two key priorities by providing legal status to current agricultural workers and their families and reforming the H-2A guest-worker visa program to permit dairy and other year-round agriculture sectors to participate.

From the farm level to Congress, immigration and labor are going to be major issues into the future. While TAD is working at the policy level, every farm must take responsibility for adhering to legal hiring practices now in place.

Return to November 2019 newsletter.