DANE, Wis. — On a recent cool, summer evening in the rolling hills just outside Madison, the capital of America’s Dairyland, the lofty pole barn of Ripp’s Dairy Valley farm briefly transformed into a town hall meeting.
As twilight descended, a crowd of more than 60 farmers, public officials, dairy workers and rural residents grabbed bowls of ice cream and took their seats for the event, sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, to learn about farming and discuss the direction of the state’s signature industry.
Chuck, Troy and Gary Ripp, owners of the farm, a large operation with about 850 milk cows, faced the crowd and fielded questions. The main topic of the night, elevated to the forefront by the election of President Donald Trump: immigration.
“Well, it’s a hot topic, and every night on the news you hear about building a wall and what we’re gonna do, like we’re gonna kick everybody out,” Chuck Ripp told the group. “First of all, Trump has a lot of power, but I don’t think he has that much power. He doesn’t quite understand, I don’t think, everything that involves in our lives all the time here on the dairy farm.”
Immigration as a top line issue for dairy farmers would have been unthinkable just a generation ago when Wisconsin’s agricultural landscape was dominated by small and medium-sized dairy farms run by the families that owned them.
Now, the nation’s No. 2 milk producing state is home to a growing number of large concentrated animal feeding operations. These businesses, which operate 24/7, year-round, require work that farmers insist most Americans will not do.
Nationally, more than half of dairy workers are immigrants, according to a 2015 industry-sponsored study, with farms that employ immigrant labor producing 79 percent of the nation’s milk.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism asked farmers, academics, a union activist and the state’s recently retired agriculture secretary how Wisconsin’s dairy industry came to rely on immigrants to keep it afloat — and what could be done to put it on a more sustainable and legal path.
The answers include raising wages and benefits paid to dairy employees, increasing automation so jobs are less physically demanding and farmers need fewer workers, and changing federal law so immigrants can work here legally.
Shelly Mayer believes the problem is broader than the dairy industry.
“We’re just short of people,” said Mayer, executive director for the Wisconsin dairy producers’ group that helped organize the get-together at the Ripp dairy farm.
“Immigration is … really a symptom of a rural labor shortage,” she said. “I don’t think any of the farmers are trying to work around the system. They just need a person they can rely on to care for cows.”
There is no doubt that in recent years, residents have fled rural counties in Wisconsin, and many of them are young people. Between 2000 and 2010, Wisconsin’s population grew by 6 percent, but more than a quarter of Wisconsin’s 72 counties lost population. Most of the losses in Wisconsin and nationally were in rural areas where the main industry is agriculture, the Center has reported.
These days, Wisconsin businesses complain they cannot find enough workers to fill positions as the state’s near-record 3.2 percent unemployment rate means just about everyone who wants a job has one.
At the same time, federal figures show the number of hired workers on dairies in Wisconsin has nearly doubled since 2006 to about 14,000 — a reflection, Mayer said, of the move away from family labor that fueled small farms that once dominated the industry.
Ben Brancel, Wisconsin’s recently retired agriculture secretary, said the nation’s “cheap food” policy puts pressure on farmers to keep down costs, including labor. Immigrants, he said, “provide valuable support for our food-producing systems.”
Another factor is what farmers such as Tim Keller describe as a lack of work ethic among U.S.-born workers. Keller milks 330 cows on his 600-acre farm near Mount Horeb, about 25 miles west of Madison. He has five immigrant workers, including his “right hand man,” who hails from Uruguay. Keller said the employee, who is here legally, has worked for him for 11 years.
Keller said he voted for Trump but disagrees with the administration’s threats to deport all undocumented immigrants. His Hispanic employees are hard-working — and highly valued, Keller said.
“Even if an American guy came up right now, I don’t know if I’d hire him,” Keller said. “I’d rather have a Latino.”
Chuck Ripp said before his farm started to grow, he and his brothers hired local high school students to help on the farm. But they never lasted. Now, 11 of the 12 non-family members who work there are Hispanic immigrants.
“We cannot find the American person to come in and work full-time on a dairy,” Ripp said in an interview. “It’s too many long hours. It’s too hard of work. And it’s seven days a week, 365 on a dairy farm. ... A cow does not take a day off.”
He added, “We’ve run ads in the papers, looking for milking technicians or people to help milk cows and things like that. We don’t even get a bite. We don’t even get calls.”
In recent years, dairy farmers have become accustomed to cheap, flexible labor, said Jill Lindsey Harrison, a former University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty member who studied the rise in immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin, a trend that started around 2000.
Harrison, who now teaches at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said such workers are willing to work long hours under “pretty crummy” conditions to support themselves and their families. Wisconsin farmers have said it is nearly impossible to convince Americans to take the jobs, which entail cleaning out stalls; night, weekend and holiday shifts; and working in every type of weather, including subzero temperatures, blazing heat, rain and snow.
Immigrant workers who do not have legal status, Harrison said, are easier to manage because “they’re going to not ruffle any feathers.” They are generally “afraid to speak up for themselves and demand better jobs,” she said.
A search is scheduled for Saturday near St. Cloud, Minn. to find a Chippewa Falls woman missing since June 22, 2016.
The search was announced on a Facebook page operated by Shannah Boiteau’s family. “We will be searching (from 9 a.m.) until sundown, with the last group being sent out around 5,” the posting said. The search will start from 24086 Minnesota State Highway 15.
Boiteau was 24 when she was last seen. She was described as being 5-foot-7, weighing 135 pounds, with brown hair and eye color.
Her father, Bud Boiteau, said Shannah Boiteau and her boyfriend got into an argument while in a car, and the boyfriend pulled the car over. Shannah got out and ran into a corn field near Interstate 94 and County 74 in Stearns County and south of St. Cloud, Minnesota. Bud Boiteau said a witness reported seeing a woman matching her description running into a corn field.
Shannon Boiteau attended Chippewa Falls Senior High School for a time before graduating from Stanley-Boyd High School in 2011.
Anyone with information on Shannah Boiteau’s disappearance is asked to call the Chippewa Falls Police Department at (715) 723-4424.