Since 1924, the Idaho Dairymen’s Association has served our industry and its members by supporting the legal, environmental and legislative issues that affect dairymen across the state. A lot has changed in the century since the IDA began, but Idaho’s commitment to a strong agriculture community and industry has remained.
While our core values — commitment, integrity and hard work among other things — have stayed the same, Idaho’s dairymen have adapted to build an industry worth more than $9 billion. That adaptation has included expanding the ever-growing pool of workers needed on Idaho’s 420 dairy farms, and we need Congress to pass legislation that would provide us with more farm hands to work with the 630,000-plus cows across the state. We need the reforms included in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, recently championed by Idaho’s Congressman Mike Simpson and passed in the House with broad bipartisan support, to bring the H-2A visa program into the 21st century, offer earned legal status to current agriculture workers and deportation protection for their immediate family members in the United States, and provide assurances for a properly documented temporary workforce in the future through the required use of E-Verify.
The trillion-dollar U.S. agriculture industry has faced a shrinking workforce for years. That shortage grew as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the American economy last year, but hardworking dairy and agriculture workers continued to deliver for Americans and people around the world. Foreign-born workers — both improperly documented and those with a work visa — have stepped up to fill the gaps in our vital workforce.
Nationwide, more than 23 million foreign-born workers hold jobs we have deemed as essential while many others were able to work from home. While immigrants only make up 13.7 percent of the total U.S. population, the U.S. agriculture workforce is 73 percent foreign-born. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one in every two farm hands in America is not authorized to work in this country. In Idaho, 85 to 90 percent of all dairy jobs are filled by foreign-born workers.
Losing foreign-born workers would be devastating to dairymen and farmers in Idaho. The fact is — we need more dedicated farm hands who are willing to work the long hours it takes to keep grocery shelves stocked across the United States.
If improperly documented dairy and agriculture workers were taken out of the workforce, it would cost the industry more than $30 billion. It could also lead to Americans paying twice the price for a gallon of delicious and nutritious Idaho milk at the grocery store. Immigration policies that diminish our labor pool are not just bad for dairymen, they’re bad for all of our customers, too. However, growing our workforce through visa expansion and residency authorization would be an economic boost for our industry and curb the cost of our products at the register.
The provisions of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would take care of both of these priorities, and the IDA is calling our lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate to get the bill across the finish line. Congressman Simpson’s bill has bipartisan support in the U.S. House of Representatives and is supported by more than 100 agriculture groups. Now that bill has moved to the Senate, Sen. James Risch has joined Mike Crapo in support of Idaho’s dairymen and our ability to provide essential products for the people of our state, by supporting the introduction of companion legislation there.
By streamlining the H-2A visa program, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would make it easier for farmers and ranchers to access legal temporary agriculture workers. It would also make worker recruitment easier, stabilize fluctuating wage costs, and reduce housing costs for workers. Outside of visa reform, the bill would offer a pathway to work authorization for the foreign born workers who have long been working on our farms and proven their value to our country.
I’m proud to represent Idaho’s dairymen. Together, we produce the third most milk in the country, support 37,000 jobs, and add $120 million to the state balance sheet. This success is the product of hard work and leadership, and it’s built on the backs of the dairy workers waking up early every day to keep our dairies going.
We’re thankful for Congressman Simpson and Sens. Crapo and Risch’s leadership, and we need the help of all of our representatives in Washington to see our industry continue to grow and thrive. The IDA asks all Idahoans to support the provisions of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
Rick Naerebout is the CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association.