IDAHO FALLS, Idaho - Idaho is known for it's potatoes. Did you know Idaho is the number four dairy state in America in terms of milk production? There are about 600,000 mature dairy cows being milked everyday in the Gem state. That sounds like very positive economic news for Idaho, but a crisis is looming.
"There is a need for good workers on dairy farms," says long time dairyman Don Taber.
He has run a dairy in Idaho for 42 years. He milks 800 head. Taber says every year it gets more and more difficult to find employees. Most are Hispanic, and this past year in particular, he says, the hiring pool has dried up because the Trump administration has increased deportation enforcement. President Trump has stated foreign born workers are taking jobs away from Americans.
"I like President Trump," says Tabor, "but I have to disagree on that. We do not have American workers coming to our dairy trying to find a job, and if we advertise for a job we do not have Americans looking to fill that job. We have Hispanic workers looking for those jobs. We hire them. They are our best employees. They're loyal, they show up for work and they do the job."
The chief executive officer of the Idaho Dairyman's Association agrees. He says 90 percent of the dairy industry's work force is foreign born. He says Idaho dairy farmers are desperate for a fair visa program.
"It's been a problem for decades," says Rick Naerebout. "We've been working a decade to move forward with responsible immigration reform and trying to find a solution. It's a political football that's never been addressed. We continue to try to find a reasonable solution so our dairy farmers know they can invest in their business and know the work force will be there to milk the cows, feed the cows, do the day to day necessities," says Naerebout.
Why can't we get Americans to do this work?
"It's not that it doesn't pay well," says Naerebout. "It pays $12.50 to $15.00 an hour."
Don Taber adds, "Our average salary is $34,000 a year. Half our workers are provided housing on the farm. Others get help with their housing if they move into town. And we give them vacation days, sick days, bonuses and life insurance."
Taber says in his opinion, we need a worker program in the U.S. that will allow these workers to come from Mexico and stay a year or two. Or, make the workers legal and give them an opportunity.
"Because they are our best work force and would be our best citizens," he adds.
Naerebout says we used to have 900 dairies in Idaho. We're now down to 500, and if a fair visa program isn't passed by Congress, more farmers will sell their dairy farms. He says it's a matter of getting lawmakers to understand the foreign workers contribution.
"Take your meal, take half your plate. Half of any meal anywhere in America is brought to you by an undocumented worker," says Naerebout.
Here's something to think about. If we don't take care of the dairy industry and they start producing less milk, we might have to start importing milk from countries that don't have the safety record in food production the U.S. has.
"We have the best food safety system in the world. We're better off having food we make. We will be importing foods that don't have our safety system. We're better off having food produced here in a safe and beneficial way," says Naerebout. "We'd rather have workers from other countries come here to raise food then to have them stay home an raise our food there."
Naerebout does not think this has anything to do with prejudice. He says lawmakers just don't understand the scope and gravity of the situation. They've not been exposed to it.