At the Turner County Dairy west of Sioux Falls, S.D., finding employees to milk 1,600 cows three times a day isn't a problem. But dairy owners and industry advocates say if something doesn't change with the country's immigration policy and visa programs, America's food production system will be in trouble.
Steve Bossman is manager of the Turner County Dairy. He oversees 34 employees. Most of the workers at the Turner County Dairy make $10 or $11 per hour, according to owners. They get health insurance after the standard 90 days, and in some cases, they receive assistance with housing.
Bossman said six or seven of his workers speak fluent English. To help translate for those who aren't fluent, Bossman relies on a smartphone app. He can say what he needs to communicate, translate through the app and have his employees read the message.
"They do an absolutely marvelous job," said Walt Bones, part owner of the Turner County Dairy and former South Dakota secretary of agriculture. He declined to identify the workers by name but allowed them to be photographed.
The workers have ingrained themselves into the community, going to local churches and schools and shopping locally. However, Bones said, some are afraid to go to Sioux Falls for fear of being harassed.
He had strong words about the country's visa program for foreign workers: "Our federal system is absolutely screwed up and broken."
Like any employer, the Turner County Dairy collects three documents when a new employee is hired. The employee provides a driver's license, a Social Security card and an I-9 tax form, which they sign to attest that they are working in the U.S. legally. Bones said the employer must have these documents on file, but it's not up to them to verify that their workers are telling the truth and working in America legally.
Earlier last month, a committee in Congress moved forward an act that would change that. All employers would have to use the eVerify system to check a worker's status against Social Security and Homeland Security records. Many farm groups have spoken against it because it makes the employer liable. Some say that there are flaws in the verification system and that employers shouldn't be responsible for misinformation.
Bones said the agricultural sector needs a program that would document who these people are, where they are and that they have a job. He said the current system is cumbersome.
Now, every five years, foreign workers are required to take a trip to their home country to renew their paperwork. In early March, Bones said, he had one employee who had gone home and another who was leaving any day. It's an expensive process, he said, and it means a worker is gone for as long as five months.
He said the dairy couldn't operate without immigrant workers. Milking is a difficult job with repetitive motions and eight-hour shifts, six days a week. Many people don't want to do it, regardless of the price, Bones said.
By some estimates, anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent of agricultural workers are not authorized to work in the U.S. Getting access to a legal, stable workforce is a priority issue for the American Farm Bureau.
"We're at the point where we're either importing our labor or we're importing our food," Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau, told the Tri-State Neighbor Reporter.
It's not just dairy that relies on immigrant workers. Livestock feedlots and sheep operations as well as cow-calf producers use immigrant labor. And it long has been a prevalent way of doing business for specialty crop operations for which food such as apples, blueberries and asparagus need to be harvested by hand.
"It really does strike everywhere," Boswell said, adding that even grain growers such as her dad in Nebraska hire immigrant workers.
And they're needed to grow and harvest America's food, she says. She said she has heard of Farm Bureau members shredding fields of squash they couldn't harvest in time, and of them making a business decision to plant a crop that could be harvested by machines instead of something like tomatoes, all because farmers weren't sure that they could get the necessary help at harvest time.
"That affects that market. It affects all of us as a consumer," Boswell said.
Lynn Boadwine, owner of the Boadwine Farms dairy operation in Baltic, South Dakota, said a guest worker program for dairies would be a big benefit for his industry.
The visa program for agricultural workers is known as the H-2A program. It's intended for seasonal work such as harvesting and typically grants an immigrant the ability to work for up to 10 months. Employers have to prove they are unable to find local workers.
"We pay good wages. So often in our industry, we just don't have people that would work nights," Boadwine said. "It takes a unique person."
U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said her brothers used the H-2A program to bring in workers during planting and harvest season.
"It works OK for that kind of operation, but it certainly doesn't work for dairy producers who need help year around," she said on the phone from her home state while Congress had a week off from session.
Legislation introduced during the last session of Congress sought to change that by granting workers a three-year stay. The Agricultural Guestworker Act, as it is known, has not been reintroduced in the current session.
"It really is a solution that should have a lot of support," Noem said. She said that she has spoken to House Speaker John Boehner on the issue and that he is in favor of making changes this session, but it doesn't have the same support in the Senate.
South Dakota's Republican U.S. senators echoed that sentiment. In an emailed statement, Sen. John Thune decried his Democratic colleagues as insisting on granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. He said it's stopping them from making any improvements to the immigration system.
Freshman Sen. Mike Rounds agreed: "If it reeks at all about amnesty, it's dead on arrival," he said on the phone from Washington.
Rounds said senators are a long way from a compromise, particularly after President Obama's executive orders to protect some immigrants from deportation. "He poisoned the well on immigration reform," Rounds said.
Workers here without documentation should be sent out, Rounds said, but he said he wants to help employers who are trying hard to follow the law. Lately, farmers - particularly those using the H-2A program - have been a target of the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
All members of the South Dakota congressional delegation agreed that the country needs a more streamlined system for workers to come here legally.
For Bones, his Hispanic workers remind him of his great-grandfather, who homesteaded a mile and a half south of the milking parlor.
"They were looking for an opportunity to work and a better life for their family," he said.