Dairy Employee
February 6, 2018

Dairy Farmers Are Paying More Than Ever

 |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

Farmers rely on skilled labor to plant and harvest crops, milk cows and manage livestock in a timely manner across the U.S. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, met with President Donald Trump in Nashville last month, to help the president understand the labor crisis America’s farmers are facing. “We are desperate to have good skilled farm laborers in America,” he says. “It is one of the biggest restraints that we have in American agriculture. We have to find a solution.”

In the dairy industry, producers are paying more than ever to fill vacant positions on their farms. Colorado dairy producer Ray DeVries says his milking staff starts at $13 per hour for an eight-hour shift. “A rise in living expenses as well as fast economic growth has created a huge worker shortage,” he says. “Dairies often compete with the construction industry.”

Maine producer Jenni Tilton-Flood says she starts milking staff at $11 per hour, and after a trial period they receive health insurance, an HSA, paid vacation and sick time in addition to housing. For Wisconsin producer Kristin Solum, the solution hasn’t been limited to increasing wages. She has become creative with shift lengths as well. “We have found that 12 hour shifts don’t work for us even if [employees] say that’s what they want,” she says. “They work five eight-hour shifts and one [12-hour shift] per week so everyone can get a day off.”

States on both coasts will experience minimum wage increases this year. In California, the minimum wage will increase to $15 per hour and overtime after eight consecutive hours of work. Farmers in the Golden State say the new overtime law will destroy employee paychecks making it even more difficult to find workers. In New York, wage increases are making dairy margins even tighter. While dairy industry leaders continue to work with Congress to find a viable guest-worker program for dairy, Trump says the agriculture industry doesn’t have to worry about losing farm workers, even with the border wall.

“We’re going to be very, very tough at the border because we have to be. But when you have people that come in and have been working on farms for many, many years and all of the sudden the border is closed, we are letting those people come through,” Trump says. “They are going to come through from a standpoint of being documented properly. We are very cognizant of the fact that we can’t take any of [agriculture’s] workers away.” Recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids are sending a different message.