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Study explores matching immigrants with dairy farmers

Wisconsin State Roundup

July 1, 1995

Study explores matching immigrants with dairy farmers

Immigrants who grew crops in their homelands may soon find work on Wisconsin dairy farms.

A study titled "Maximizing the Human Resources of Wisconsin's New Immigrants for the Dairy Industry" will determine the feasibility of Hmong and Hispanic immigrants living and working on dairy farms, says study director Larry Swain of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls' Rural Development Institute. The Wisconsin Future Farmers of America Foundation was awarded a grant to collaborate on the study.

Many recent immigrants looking for work in Minnesota and Wisconsin have skills in agriculture. On the other hand, dairy farmers struggle to find stable employees in a tight job market. "We must find out the needs of the immigrants and what the dairy farmers want and see if there is a match," Swain says.

The first part of the survey will study Hmong residents, many of whom already live in rural areas. In their homeland they grew vegetables and raised hogs, although "milk cows, they haven't done," Swain says. "The Hmong have spent a large time in agriculture."

In the Midwest, families have traditionally provided the labor for dairy farms. However, with recent growth in farm sizes, dairy farmers have had to hire employees.

"Wisconsin and Minnesota are below the rate of natural unemployment," Swain says. "When dairy farmers place an ad for help, sometimes they only get one response." Although farmers are willing to pay competitive wages from $7 to $10 per hour, they still face long employee searches, high turnover rates and employees "without the same [work] ethic as a farmer," Swain says. "That stresses them."

The plan calls for immigrants to receive a regular hourly job at competitive wages, benefits that include a health care plan and perhaps land for a home and garden. In return, farmers would receive the help of skilled employees who may stay for another generation or more. The survey asks farmers if from one to six immigrant families could stay on their land.

About 100 of 500 Hmong immigrants have been surveyed, with the help of a Hmong college student. Five FFA chapters are surveying more than 300 dairy farmers with anywhere from 20 to 400 cows. The data will be reviewed by a task force in the fall, and if the plan is feasible, Swain will work with state agencies on its implementation.

So far respondents are reacting favorably, Swain says. "Farmers are saying, 'when can I hire people?' and the immigrants are saying, 'when can I go to work?'"

Rob Grunewald