Dairy farmers across North America are facing a labour crunch.
Finding labourers willing to work in agriculture is nothing new. For years, many labour-intensive sectors of agriculture have relied on migrant workers seeking work that average Americans and Canadians are no longer willing to do.
But this phenomenon is relatively new in the dairy sector and presents a growing challenge for dairy farmers across North America. At the World Dairy Expo last month in Madison, Wisconsin, Cornell University professor Thomas Maloney outlined the challenges facing U.S. dairy farmers as they search for labourers to help them milk their cows.
Maloney noted that two-thirds of dairy farms in western New York now employ more than 50% Hispanic workers, mostly from Mexico. That trend is likely to continue, says Maloney because dairy farmers need to access to this labour pool. However, increasing U.S. protectionism and calls for immigration reform and tighter boarder controls threatens to limit access to this important labour pool.
Maloney adds that it will be crucial for dairy states like Wisconsin to make legislatures understand the need for ‘guest worker’ programs that include dairy.
Declining birth rates in Mexico are another trend that pose a longer-term challenge for U.S. dairy farmers. Maloney explains that Mexican birth rates are dropping quickly and the number of Mexicans available to migrate to the U.S. and work on farms is in sharp decline. The growing dangers Mexicans face when crossing the U.S. is also keeping more of them at home.
Maloney says farmers who do have an opportunity to hire migrant workers also face increasing scrutiny from a growing number of worker advocacy groups such as Vermont-based Migrant Justice. The organization’s ‘Milk With Dignity’ program is committed to improving work, pay and living conditions for migrant dairy workers in the state.
Advocacy organizations such as Migrant Justice are also targeting communications to consumers and food companies to increase awareness of the plight of migrant workers. Maloney explains the goal of these campaigns is not only to have consumers ask about how dairy farmers treat their cows but also how they treat their workers.
Overall, these trends are likely to have far-reaching impacts for both U.S. and Canadian farmers. Maloney expects farm wages are likely to rise faster than the rate of inflation; dairy employers will be under increased pressure to comply with labour laws; there will be greater demands for improved worker housing; and as labour costs go up, robotics will look more attractive and the pace of mechanization is likely to accelerate.
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