PERRY, N.Y. (DTN) -- As John Emerling proudly showed off his family's dairy operation to a bunch of tourists, he took time out to talk about his workers.
"We do have Hispanics here," Emerling said. "We need them. We are very upset with Washington ... It seems they weren't addressing the immigration issue until the last election." Emerling added, "I don't know what we would do without them."
Emerling Farms is a 1,200-head operation run by John and his son, Mike. The Emerlings have 20 full-time employees, and like a growing number of larger dairies, most of those workers are immigrants. John Emerling said he realizes some people don't understand the need for immigrant labor, particularly when unemployment remains high. "But it wouldn't matter what we paid. People just wouldn't answer."
John Emerling later told the story of an employee who has worked on the farm over the last seven years. The employee had paperwork showing he was legal, yet was separated from his daughter that whole time and was reluctant to go back to Mexico because he feared he wouldn't be able to return. "Those are sad stories," Emerling said.
Emerling said a labor policy should allow such workers to come from Mexico, get to return home from time-to-time and return.
The U.S. Senate immigration reform bill passed in June would legalize an estimated 11 million now in the country illegally, including farm workers. The bill has a special provision giving a "blue card" to farm workers who have worked at least 100 days on farms over a two-year period in 2011-12. After five years, they can become permanent residents. Five years later, those workers can apply for citizenship.
The Senate bill also would allow up to 112,333 new agricultural worker visas, a number that could grow depending on labor conditions.
Pressure is now on House members who can expect a great deal of lobbying from both sides during the August recess. House leaders have tentatively indicated they may start to take up immigration bills in October. Both Tea Party activists and Hispanic groups have said they plan to push their own takes on immigration reform at town-hall meetings.
For New York's dairy farmers, immigration reform has become a critical key to unlocking a growing opportunity in the state. The importance of yogurt to dairy farmers in New York is akin to that of ethanol to corn farmers in Iowa.
Yogurt is generating significant foreign investment in western New York. A few highlights include PepsiCo and the German company Theo Muller Group creating a joint venture to build a 350,000-square-foot yogurt processor in Batavia. The Muller Quaker Dairy is a $200 million investment. The facility will start with 150 employees and grow from there. Moreover, the plant is adjacent to a new $20 million Greek yogurt plant started by Alpina Foods, a South American company.
"They (Alpina) have already decided to expand their facility after one year," said Dean Norton, president of the New York Farm Bureau. Norton's family has been milking cows near Batavia, N.Y., for five generations. He shares ownership of a 900-head dairy operation with his brothers and parents.
Even before new facilities such as Muller and Alpina came on-line, yogurt production in New York doubled from 158 million pounds in 2005 to 1.2 billion pounds in 2011. Upstate Niagara Cooperative is another processor that has expanded largely due to yogurt. Owned by 360 farmers, Upstate has added two facilities since 2011.
"Yogurt has been where the market is growing, no question about it," said Jay Jaskiewicz, senior director of commercial operations. "Greek yogurt is taking off because it's rich in protein."
New York's dairy industry and state officials want New York to become the "yogurt capital of the world." The popularity of yogurt has added value to the state's milk and is prompting a push to reverse a trend of declining herd size that goes back at least three decades. Since the 1982 Ag Census, the dairy herd in New York has gone down by 265,000 milking cows to about 610,000. Production increases in New York so far have been largely due to boosting milk per-cow, but to keep with demand, the herd has to grow.
With the state's average herd size at about 150 head, Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed last year to increase the state's exemption for confined animal feeding operation regulations from 200 dairy cows to 300. That was hailed by New York Farm Bureau, but environmental groups late last month announced a lawsuit, arguing that such an exemption change must be approved by the state legislature.
Tom Overton, an animal science professor at Cornell University who has worked on dairy growth in the state, said herd expansion in New York won't happen through construction of 3,000-head operations, but by smaller operations adding to their numbers. Still, land values are high and the issue of labor looms.
"The immigration and labor thing is very acute and has been," said Overton. "A lot of our larger dairies, until that gets taken care of, they are not inclined to grow their businesses. So that really is a big deal."
New York Farm Bureau has been actively lobbying House members on immigration reform through a variety of ways, including posting videos on YouTube with farmers talking about labor challenges.
"It's difficult to go through H-2A as a dairy operation," Norton said.
While labor-intensive agriculture seeks to grow in the area, Batavia also is home to a training facility and detention center for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There's a tendency for farms to become the focus of ICE training exercises.
"This has kind of been ground zero for immigration enforcement for a long time," Norton said. "The worry over whether your workforce is going to be there working keeps some farmers up at night."
Dairy operations aren't the only ag operations that rely on Latino labor. Western New York also has a significant fruit and vegetable industry as well. "So we have had a lot of Latinos here for quite a while," Norton said. "They have assimilated quite well."
But ICE enforcement, complications with the H-2A program and other laws such as insurance requirements coming from the Affordable Care Act are causing at least some farmers to shift practices. Norton said at least one major cabbage grower in the region opted to move away from the labor-intensive crop this year because of the labor challenges.
Dairy farmers also have been keeping a close eye on the farm bill, Norton said. There has been some division among them over the supply-management provisions that are in the Senate bill, but were removed from the House bill. Most of the farmers already use some form of margin insurance on their operation, Norton said.
"The farm bill is important, but immigration will have a bigger impact long term than the farm bill will," he said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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