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Hispanic Workforce in Pennsylvania Dairy: Receiving Hope and Paying It Forward

By Lisa Graybeal

Quite frequently my family and I are invited to our employees' family festivities. We've been to graduation parties, Quinceañeras (a celebration when a young woman turns 15), and christenings. I remember one event my father and I attended hosted by one of our full-time cow milkers on our dairy farm. Looking around the large group of the hosts' loved ones, who were primarily from Mexico, my dad struck up a conversation with one of the guests and asked him why everyone was here in this country. His answer has always stayed with me. Slowly shaking his head, the man looked directly at my dad and replied, "Because where we come from, there is no hope."

How it began

As a third-generation dairy farmer with my brother, Byron — celebrating 81 years since our grandparents started our farm in southern Lancaster County in 1942 — I can state, without hesitation, that we would not be in business today if we didn't have our Hispanic labor force.

Our journey employing Hispanic workers started in the late 1990s. My brother had returned to the farm after college at Delaware Valley University to join our father, Steve, and uncle, Joe, to continue the family legacy of milking cows nd cropping our land. At that time, with 400 Holstein cows and an equal amount of youngstock in barns and milking facilities that were starting to show their ages, our family began to plan for our future. We decided to expand the business by buying cows, steadily growing the herd from within, and started the long process of planning and permitting to construct a new barn, milking parlor, and manure storage. We also went from milking our herd twice daily to three times — a concept the industry was quickly embracing.

Management decisions, like adding animals and increasing procedures, take people. Deciding to expand raises the stakes. The trickle-down effect is enormous during an expansion, and we were faced with many new challenges. More cows mean more offspring, and more milk, which requires additional storage; more waste to handle; more crops to cultivate and harvest. The list goes on. A steady, reliable workforce to meet our growing needs would be crucial to our success.

We advertised for help as we ramped up our operation and word-of-mouth brought us a man named Arturo Romero. A guest worker from Mexico, Arturo came to this country to work in neighboring Chester County at a mushroom house. Since the mushroom industry was more seasonal at that time, Arturo was seeking year-round employment. Though he had no dairy experience and limited English proficiency, we hired him on the spot as we had few applicants. He came to our farm in 1999 with his wife and five children. Now over two decades later, our family still relies on guest workers from Mexico and Central America to keep our business running.

How it's going

In February, Arturo retired from working on our farm after 19 years. We are fortunate to have several other long-term employees on our dairy farm. We attribute that to providing good wages, benefits, opportunities to advance, and secure and modern housing in an area with good schools and services.

We have watched many of our employees' children grow up. In May, one of our families marked a milestone as their daughter, Diana, who also worked part-time for us through high school as a calf feeder, graduated from Widener University. She was the first college graduate in her family.

Working together with our faithful employees, our dairy farm has grown to our current size milking 840 cows on nearly 1,500 acres.

Hope for the future

Dairy farmers and the agriculture industry in general have turned to guest worker programs to meet labor needs out of necessity. Farm work is challenging, and for many farms, those challenges are only amplified by not being able to find reliable help from the local workforce.

American farmers are at a competitive disadvantage without an adequate supply of labor. According to the American Farm Bureau (AFB), agriculture requires anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million hired workers annually. The AFB reported that Americans ate 6.6 billion more pounds of imported fresh fruits and vegetables in the years from 2010-2012 than they ate from 1998 to 2000. Food security and affordability are considerably more challenging as we rely more on importing food into this country.

For more than two decades, my family and many others in the agriculture industry have pleaded with our federal legislators to come up with a solution to our labor crisis. Programs like the H-2A visas supply seasonal workers, providing less than 4 percent of the hired workers American employers need. The H-2A process is burdensome, expensive, and often requires the assistance of attorneys. Agriculture has advocated for Congress to consider agriculture labor reform outside of the complexities of the larger immigration conversations so that our unique workforce needs can be addressed.

Arturo and the millions of Hispanic workers like him give their families hope by finding opportunities in our country through agriculture. They give our farm and our family hope for a sustainable, productive future for our business. They strengthen our culture by sharing theirs, and we all hope for a more equitable future and food systems across the globe.  We are grateful to work alongside the dedicated and amazing individuals who bring hope and so much more through agriculture.

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