NMPF president warns that US dairy labor shortage could become ‘dire’

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

The US dairy industry relies heavily on immigrant workers, the NMPF president and CEO said. © iStock/anantols
The US dairy industry relies heavily on immigrant workers, the NMPF president and CEO said. © iStock/anantols

Related tags Dairy industry Dairy farming Milk Dairy

The US dairy industry has faced labor shortage issues for years, but the situation may become more unfavorable under the Trump Administration as its immigration policies will likely hit the immigrant-reliant dairy industry hard, NMPF president and CEO Jim Mulhern warned. 

Actions such as building a multi-billion-dollar border wall between the US and Mexico as well as hiring thousands of immigration officers to locate and deport undocumented individuals will have a negative impact on the stability of US dairy’s workforce.

A little over half (51%) of the dairy industry workforce is made up of foreign-born workers, a national study conducted by economists at Texas A&M found.

“Because such a large volume of milk production depends on them, losing even just a portion of foreign-born undocumented workers would have serious implications for both farmers and consumers,”​ Mulhern said.

According to Mulhern, in the worst-case scenario, a complete loss of immigrant labor in dairy farming could result in an economic loss of $32bn and 208,000 jobs.

“Not only would farm workers be lost, but those further down the value chain whose jobs are tied to crop, produce and livestock production would be at risk.”

NMPF proposes solution to labor shortage

The dairy industry in the US as a whole feels uncertain about the future of its workforce, according to Mulhern. As a response to the general confusion surrounding future immigration policies, NMPF proposed a solution based on two key principles:

1. Providing an affordable and efficient guest-worker program that ensures the continued availability of immigrant labor for all of agriculture, including dairies; and

2. Permitting those currently employed or with employment history in the US to earn the right to work here legally, regardless of their current legal status.

The current way to address labor shortages in the dairy industry is through the H-2A temporary and seasonal foreign agricultural workforce program, designed to help dairy farmers and processors fulfil short-term job needs.

“Many jobs in farming and food processing are not seasonal and thus can’t use the H-2A program at all – which is why dairy farmers need another approach, not one centered on reforming H-2A,” ​he said.

Mulhern stressed that NMPF’s proposed solution is not intended to undermine the importance of border security and interior law enforcement, but that such measures must be paired with a focus on the current and future agricultural labor needs in the US.

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