From WatertownDailyTimes.com, “Worries over alien workers stress farmers” by Sarah Haase, Times Staff Writer, 31 Mar 2011.
Low milk prices aren’t the only challenges facing dairy farmers, as a tight labor market is getting tighter in an era of hypersensitivity over alien workers.
“There needs to be some legislation that clarifies the tone of this issue. Either that, or we’ll be importing a lot of milk from somewhere else,” said Arthur F. Baderman agriculture and natural resource outreach agent for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County.
In light of Wednesday’s arrest of John Barney, co-owner of Butterville Farm, Smithville, the Jefferson County agriculture community is trying to take action before the dust settles. Mr. Barney was arrested by federal agents about 7:20 a.m. for allegedly knowing he had hired illegal immigrants to milk cows on his farm. He was driven to Syracuse for arraignment, where he was released without bail by U.S. District Court Judge Andrew T. Baxter.
Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agriculture coordinator, said the alleged charge “is bogus.” He contends that Mr. Barney and any other dairy farmer would be reluctant to hire any workers if the required paperwork is missing.
“The farming community doesn’t deserve this,” he said. “The legal requirement for these farms are to check I-9 forms and Social Security numbers. That is what the law requires them to do.”
Immigration forms, which alien workers present to an employer for temporary employment, also were taken from Butterville Farm.
“The system is broke,” Mr. Matteson said. “Our federal legislators need to fix this situation. We are tired of being forced into a situation where we are hung out to dry” when it comes to hiring local workers or immigrant workers.
Mr. Baderman said caring for cows can be compared to caring for toddlers in day care.
“What would happen if you went in and pulled all the adults from the day care center? You’d have a bunch of babies and children looking after themselves,” he said.
Mr. Baderman said Butterville Farm “tries to do everything right to the best of their knowledge.”
“If you were to walk through their barns before they lost their workers, it would have been clean and everything done properly,” Mr. Baderman said. “They worked with animal nutritionists, veterinarians, anyone they needed to make sure things were done properly. It’s just one of the many family-owned farms that are trying to survive.”
One employee can care for up to 40 cows. The process of milking a cow, cleaning and sterilizing the udder and hooking the milk machine to the cow can take up to 15 minutes per animal, Mr. Baderman said.
Local farmers look for and are more than willing to hire local employees, but locals don’t want the jobs, Mr. Baderman said.
“Even with the unemployment rate as high as it is, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone locally who wants to work with livestock,” he said. “Some farmers get frustrated when they can’t find competent workers. Most Hispanic laborers are willing to work hard, have a cheery attitude and respect the animals. The workers then earn the respect of the farmers because of their consistently reliable work.”
Mr. Matteson said the alien workers are paid an average of $12 to $14 an hour for work on dairy farms. In court documents after Wednesday’s raid, however, one of the workers admitted to a sheriff’s sergeant that they were in the county illegally and said they worked 12-hour shifts for an hourly pay of $7.75 to $8.75.
“I strongly doubt those statements,” Mr. Matteson said. “Contrary to what one Hispanic worker told the courts to get out of jail early, farm laborers get paid $12 to $14.”
As for the more than 60-hour workweek?
“These guys leave if they don’t get 10 to 12 hours of work,” Mr. Matteson said. “They aren’t bound to any farm. If a better opportunity comes up at a different farm, they leave. They’re not here to have fun.”
Mr. Baderman agreed. He said most alien workers stay in the country for about three years. They send their wages back to their native countries where the family can start a business, buy property or build a house.
Under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, there is a program that manages seasonal laborers. H-2A is a temporary-worker program that allows agriculture workers to stay employed for production and harvesting for less than a year. No provisions were made for longer-term work, the type required by dairy farms.
Members of the county’s agriculture industry said that needs to change.
Stephen H. Lee, owner of Cady-Lee Farm, Hounsfield, milks 62 cows daily. His family-owned and -operated farm is considered a small one, he said.
“It’s kind of unfair that John is taking the heat for something a lot of farms are doing,” Mr. Lee said. “The farms have been hiring immigrant workers for 15 years now. The country needs to make up its mind. It’s like they ignore the problem until it blows up in their faces.”
Mr. Baderman said the government limits what farms can and cannot do. He said the H-2A program is good for produce farmers, so “why can’t we do the same thing with a little alterations?”
As solutions, he said, Congress could create a program geared toward dairy farmers or extend the time limit that immigrant workers are allowed to remain in the country.
“Up to three years, then they have to go home — that’s about the time that most of them want to be away from their families anyway,” Mr. Baderman said. “They don’t want to live here. If we had a program similar to migrant farmers, that would help us a lot.”
Mr. Matteson said dairy farmers most will likely tread softly as they move forward. The dairy industry has a huge economic impact in the north country and is the livelihood for many families, including the Barneys, who have a 1,200-head farm.
“I expect they’ll try and keep things going,” Mr. Matteson said. “Their farm has a $13 million economic impact. If it were me, I’d tell them to stick it, I’m not going to do this anymore. Why go through all this to be made out to look like a criminal when he’s not?”