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Labor shortage: Dairy producers doing more work with fewer employees

The last time dairy producers reported having enough workers was back in 2012, according to the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

BOISE, Idaho — From the milk in your fridge to your favorite ice cream, most of it starts on a farm. However, now like many other industries, the dairy workers who help process that milk and get it to your local grocery store are experiencing labor pains.

“From an on-farm perspective our dairyman and other farmers they just have to try and figure out how to be more creative with the work force that they have unfortunately, it does stifle business activity and business growth,” said Rick Naerebout, chief executive officer with the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

He told KTVB, right now, dairy workers are having trouble filling their openings, and they're having to do more with fewer employees. 

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“That's largely due to the fact that we've stalled out in having congress addressing an ag immigration reform legislation,” Naerebout said. 

That legislation is known as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The House has passed it twice, and some members of Congress, including Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), have supported the bill.

“What that bill does is it's got three main titles, one it provides legal status for the existing ag workers here that are in the country and their family members, and then it provides access for year-round employers like the dairy industry to the H2A visa program so we can bring in workers through that program in the future and then it would also require that any of our ag producers using that visa program would mandatory e-verify their workforce to make sure they're here with legal status,” Naerebout said.

Rep. Simpson sent the following written statement to KTVB on Wednesday:

“More farm workers, especially in dairy, are sorely needed across Idaho.  Americans expect their favorite products to be on grocery store shelves, but this simply cannot happen without agricultural labor. The bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act has the power to end the workforce crisis by reforming the H-2A visa program, and I hope the Senate will resume negotiations soon to get this bill across the finish line.”

Naerebout also said he's hopeful they can see movement in the Senate on this bill, but right now it appears to be in limbo. 

“Over the past few months as Democrats have focused on legalization throughout the budget reconciliation process, those negotiations have broke down and they've stepped away from the negotiating table as of right now,” Naerebout said. 

Which as he explained, means the shortage will continue. For perspective, Naerebout added, the last time dairy producers reported having enough workers was back in 2012.

“At that point we were milking in the state about 550,000 cows and had about 8,000 workers in on farm positions. Today, we're milking about 100,000 more cows so we're milking 650,000 cows in the state and we may have about 4,400 workers on the dairy facility so we're doing a tremendous amount more work with significantly fewer workers,” Naerebout said.

He goes on to say, this isn't just an Idaho Dairy Issue, but could soon be felt across the country.

"If you look at all food production in this country about half of all the ag work force is here without status, so half of every meal you eat is brought to you by an immigrant that's here without legal status, and that's how significant this issue is, our food supply and the ability for us to feed America is completely dependent on a workforce that's foreign-born and to a large degree is here without status,” Naerebout said. 

Another impact of this shortage? The Idaho Dairymen's Association says it could also cause some dairy producers to go out of business and sell their family farms because there's too much uncertainty, and when you're dealing with live animals there's not an option of failing.

The Idaho Dairymen's Association says this is an issue that has been going on for five or more years. They’re hoping to spread awareness and get the word out so everyone understands the impact and what's at stake.

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