Study Highlights Community Impact of Idaho’s Growing Hispanic Dairy Workforce

October 25, 2009 07:00 PM
Follow this link to read an editorial written by Bob Naerebout, Executive Director Idaho Dairymens Association, regarding the study. You can find the full report at

A first-of-its-kind study to analyze the impact of Idaho's Hispanic dairy labor force at the community level recommends the industry work toward developing a national immigration policy that gives employers and workers more security and predictability.


In "Community Level Impacts of Idaho's Changing Dairy Industry” released today, lead researchers Priscilla Salant and J.D. Wulfhorst of the University of Idaho find that communities are better off economically because of the dairy industry, but they struggle to adjust to the challenges of a changing and growing population.


Areas where foreign-born dairy workers live will benefit if those workers are secure enough to fully participate in community life, Salant and Wolfhorst say. In turn, dairy producers will benefit from access to workers who have a stake in the community and are more likely to stay in one place longer.


"Clearly, achieving such a [national immigration] policy is a long-term objective that has proven tremendously difficult to achieve, but it will have the greatest payoff to all concerned,” say the study's authors.


"We've heard a lot of discussion about the dairy industry's impact,” says Bob Naerebout, executive director of Idaho Dairymen's Association, which commissioned the study. "We wanted the study to try to understand what the actual impacts are. We knew there would be positives and negatives."


As a result of its dramatic dairy growth over the last decade, Idaho now ranks No. 4 in U.S. milk production. Much of Idaho's dairy growth has been concentrated in the south central part of the state, also known as the "Magic Valley.”


 In a corresponding rise, Idaho's Hispanic population in southern Idaho has grown by 85% since 2000. The number of Hispanic individuals in that region grew from about 80,000 in 1997 to almost 140,000 in 2008, according to the report.


The recent concentration in the dairy industry and a growing Hispanic population are national and not unique to Idaho, the researchers say.  Similar trends are also occurring in California's Central Valley and the Texas Panhandle.


Among the study's key findings:


  • Dairy farm workers tend to be young adult men who are Hispanic and foreign-born.  
  • The growing dairy sector has contributed to economic growth in south central Idaho, especially in Jerome County. While many rural communities in farming-dependent counties are losing population, the state's dairy region, particularly in Jerome and Gooding Counties, is bucking the national trend as a result of its rapidly growing Hispanic sector.  
  • Some local residents among Idaho's dairy regions face serious economic hardship. Child poverty rates and proportions of children eligible for reduced-price school meals are higher than state numbers.
  • Growth of southern Idaho's dairy industry has not served as a catalyst for increasing crime. Instead, foreign-born workers may need assistance if they do enter the legal or criminal justice systems. Idaho has an increasing need for Spanish-speaking translators. 
  • Hispanic dairy workers are not overburdening the healthcare system and may, in fact, be underserved.

  • Schools face the most intense challenge with the increasing Hispanic population, particularly as they struggle to address students with limited English proficiency.

The study recommends that the state's dairy industry support additional research to better identify dairy workers, where they live and their needs. The industry should also advocate for actions to build the economic prosperity of its workforce. That includes encouraging workers to file for the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit to boost their income.




Catherine Merlo is Western editor for Dairy Today. You can reach her at

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