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Lack of Cow Milkers for N.Y.’s Yogurt Spurs Immigration Debate

March 12, 2013

Dairies struggle with U.S. immigration laws that were designed for seasonal farm laborers instead of the year-round, seven-days-a-week ones they need.

The Alpina Foods Inc. plant that just opened in Batavia, New York, to feed the nation’s growing appetite for Greek-style yogurt should have nearby dairy farmers such as Matt Lamb scrambling to expand their herds.

It isn’t -- and not because cows are in short supply. Lamb says he’s reluctant to add to his family’s 5,000-cow dairy operation for fear he won’t have enough workers to milk them every day. That’s partly due, he says, to U.S. immigration laws that were designed for seasonal farm laborers instead of the year-round, seven-days-a-week ones he needs.

"There’s a true lack of warm bodies to do the work in this industry," said the 36-year-old Lamb, walking through softly falling snow and nearly ankle-deep mud toward one of his milking parlors. "We have Americans who can do this work, but without the immigrants we won’t have enough. Businesses will fail, and prices will rise."

The labor shortfall has the bipartisan group of U.S. senators vowing to ensure dairy interests will be reflected in the revamp of immigration laws they are trying to craft. Senators including New York Democrat Charles Schumer, who has vowed to make his state a hub of Greek yogurt production, say they are trying to ensure a reliable supply for companies including Dean Foods Co., the country’s biggest milk producer.

Record Production

Ultimately their efforts could falter as have past attempts to retool the nation’s laws on foreign workers. President Barack Obama has been pressing senators to complete their measure this month, and has said he’ll release his immigration rewrite if they don’t reach a timely agreement.

The nation’s 9.2 million dairy cows last year produced more than 200 billion pounds of milk, a record that equates to more than three cups a day for every American, and the sector is expected to generate $38.5 billion in sales this year, up 4.2 percent from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

New York, the fourth-biggest U.S. milk-producer with about 6,000 dairies, increasingly depends on immigrant labor to tend its cows, joining other states led by California, the biggest dairy state.

A 2009 survey by Texas A&M University sponsored by the National Milk Producers Federation found that about 41 percent of dairy workers, around 57,000 people, were foreign-born, most from Mexico. Without immigrant labor, higher wage rates and shortages would push up retail dairy prices by 61 percent, the study concluded.

‘Workable Program’

Lawmakers including Schumer said in January they plan to draft legislation that would "create a workable program to meet the needs of America’s agricultural industry, including dairy, to find agricultural workers when American workers are not available."

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