Got Milk? On One Utah Dairy Farm, Labor Shortage Causes Concern | KUER 90.1

Got Milk? On One Utah Dairy Farm, Labor Shortage Causes Concern

Apr 18, 2017


Fifth generation dairy farmer Ron Gibson is showing off his farm in West Weber, Utah, on a sunny day in April. It's a 500-acre stretch of land with sweeping views of the still snow-capped Wasatch Mountains, about an hour north of Salt Lake.

Pointing to a smaller brown cow, he explains the difference between Jersey and black-and-white Holstein varieties.

"A Jersey cow is a much smaller cow than a Holstein…and they give less milk. But the milk that they give is higher in butterfat and protein," Gibson says. "So a gallon of Jersey milk will make more cheese or more ice cream than a gallon of Holstein milk.”

 

With his 1,500-cow operation, he produces 12,000 gallons per day, milking 50 at a time in a large warehouse with computerized monitors above each stall. Bright green tubes snake from the utter to a centralized cooling tank.  

Inside Gibson's Green Acres milking operation, where 50 cows are hooked up to machines. Each cow produces about 10 gallons of milk each day.
Credit Julia Ritchey, KUER

It’s a finely tuned set-up, but lately Gibson — who's also president of the Utah Farm Bureau — has had to scale back.

“So in the past we have milked our cows four times a day," he says. "Right now, we’re milking them three times a day.”

The reason, he says, is labor. Gibson says especially since the election of President Trump, he’s noticed workers becoming even more scarce.

“Labor has been an increasingly greater challenge over the last few years, but especially since November it’s ratcheted up," he says. "There’s just a tremendous fear from Hispanic laborers to work.”

Gibson estimates he could use at least another five farmhands to help keep up with his herd.

Complicating matters is that his year-round farm doesn’t qualify for the federal government’s H2-A visa program. The H2-A allows for hiring of seasonal employment, think fruit and vegetable pickers in the summer, but not for full-time operations.

“So when you’re in a state like Utah, and you have less than a 4 percent unemployment rate, how many people are going to want to stand in a milking parlor and milk cows for 10 hours a day?” he says.

For Gibson, the hardest job to keep staffed are those milkers who make about $12 an hour.

“I’ve had probably more phone calls on problems with immigration and labor — and meeting the needs of their people," says Randy Parker, CEO of Utah's Farm Bureau.

He's especially troubled by stories he’s heard from food manufacturing plants in the state that have had to cut back or are under threat of closing due to lack of workers.

 

But Armando Elenes, a vice president with the United Farm Workers union, disagrees. He's says farmers aren’t telling the full story on why the labor pool is drying up.

 

Elenes says yes, fear of a new political regime that promises a crackdown on immigration is definitely a factor. About half of the country’s farm workers are unauthorized immigrants, according to the Department of Labor.

But so is the fact that farmers have not raised their wages to become more competitive.

“It’s a workers’ market, and the growers are not comfortable with that,” he says.

Elenes says many in the agriculture industry got so used to a glut of cheap labor, they became accustomed to keeping their wages the same.

“They’re not competing, they’re simply not competing,” he says.

Gibson says he tries to offer decent pay. He estimates that about 20 of his 30 employees come from Latin America — places like Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and Argentina.

Noe Lopez has worked on Gibson's farm for 17 years, tending to the cows and making sure they receive proper care. It took him 10 years, but he was able to get a green card with Gibson's help, an opportunity few farm workers are afforded.
Credit Julia Ritchey, KUER

He introduces me to Noe Lopez, who has tended Gibson’s cows for more than 15 years.

“He’s the guy who takes care of our animals and breeds them all and follows protocols from the veterinarian that sick animals receive the proper care," he says. "I don’t know even know how I’d replace him.”

Lopez says before he worked on the farm he picked up odd jobs as a dishwasher and a painter, but is comfortable with his current gig.

“He’s a good boss [and] I like my job now —  I think he’s the same family, good for everybody,” says Lopez.

It took him 10 years, but with Gibson’s help, Lopez acquired a green card through a program no longer available. Lopez says his other friends haven’t been so lucky.

“I think it’s hard for the guys that don’t have their papers — Social Security — that’s hard for everybody,” he says.

Gibson is bothered by the current political climate and what he sees as Washington’s indifference to America’s food producers.

He says many in his industry were frustrated by President Trump dragging his feet nominating an Agricultural Secretary, the last post to be nominated. And although they're happy with his selection of former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, he’s yet to be confirmed.

“That did have a lot of us wondering what really was going on," he says. "But I think this problem is a little bigger than the Trump administration or who’s on in office because this is something that’s been happening.”

Gibson, who would only say that he didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, remains optimistic. He says when Perdue is confirmed, farmers will once again have an advocate in the White House.

Jersey cows graze on hay at Gibson's Green Acres dairy farm in West Weber. Gibson's cows produce about 12,000 gallons each day on his 500-acre farm.
Credit Julia Ritchey, KUER

Gibson says he hopes the new administration will soon see the labor issue as more nuanced. So far, Trump has pivoted on issues like trade, but has yet to moderate on immigration.  

“They’re just like my family, I love ‘em," says Gibson of his employees. "They’ve been here a long time; they sacrifice everything that they have; they work hard everyday.”

Gibson says without people like Noe Lopez and his other dedicated farm workers, he could not expect to pass his dairy operation onto a sixth generation.