By Jeremy C. Nagel
AgriNotes & News
LANSING — Fruit and vegetable growers aren't the only segment of Michigan's vast agriculture industry clamoring for comprehensive, federal-level immigration reform. Dairy farming remains the single largest component of the state's expanding farm sector, and Hispanic workers have become integral to our milk industry.
Kerry Nobis manages a staff of 23 full-time workers year-round "on the cow side" of his family's 1,000-head dairy farm outside St. Johns in Clinton County. Currently his crew is more than half Hispanic, although that percentage represents an ongoing shift from what's been the norm there for decades.
"For a long time Latinos were the only people applying for these jobs, but that's been changing over the past few years," Nobis said. "We've had the bad economy and factory jobs are a distant memory, but agriculture keeps growing. There are a lot of jobs in our industry, and I think people are beginning to appreciate that more than they have in the past."
In recent years Nobis has turned to Michigan Works! to help fill vacancies on his crew, but openings aren't common — turnover is low.
"Agricultural jobs can be immensely rewarding," said Craig Anderson, agriculture labor and safety services manager for Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB). "Farm work builds a respect for nature, enriches your understanding of how things work and develop an unquestionable work ethic that employers respect. These are qualities you can't learn in school."
"We have people who've milked cows for us over 10 years, and they just want to stay," Nobis said. "They're paid well and earn regular raises. They make enough that they've stayed here — it's a career — we pay our people well and provide them means for advancement."
The USDA's National Farm Labor Survey found hourly earnings for non-supervisory farm laborers averaging between $10.50 and $10.80 since 2007. The average hourly livestock worker wage in 2011 was $11.60 and the mean hourly wage of all farmworkers was nearly $14.
"I wouldn't hesitate to call dairy farm work a skilled trade; these folks could easily go somewhere else if they wanted to. But every person here, they're building a life — they're members of the community, their kids are in school with my kids and they have a diverse group of friends," Nobis said. "They're part of our community and they want to do this for a living. They don't want to go back to Mexico."
And from Nobis' perspective, it's the obligation of Americans to foster and encourage the work ethic that has forged every wave of immigrants into every next American generation for more than 200 years.
"I don't want to say Latinos are more ambitious than any other group, but right now I'll say they're certainly more conscious of the American dream, and it's fun and rewarding to be a part of that," he said. "They're living the American dream, and as Americans we should facilitate that — we should be proud of that."
Almost 70 percent of Michigan Hispanics age 45 or older are homeowners, Anderson said. Their family members are also working, attending college and buying businesses of their own.
Nobis says the specter of losing all they've worked for haunts Hispanic farm workers regardless of what kind of business employs them. In his experience, the notion that Latinos working on American farms are simply piping their earnings straight back to Mexico is a tired misconception.
"One young woman who works here came to America when she was six years old. Now she's 20, in college, and she's terrified she'll have to go back to Mexico someday," he said. "It's a terrifying thought to her — that she could be uprooted and returned to a country that offers little opportunity and headline-making violence."
Nobis explains the woman's legal status is currently — but for only a two-year period — protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order that provides conditional relief from deportation for foreign workers who arrived as minors and attend American schools, demonstrate "good moral character," meet certain residency requirements and provide the government with all the information to allow deportation in the future.
"Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a little Band-Aid on a deep wound, caused in large part by a regulatory and enforcement system that has failed to respond modern workforce needs," Anderson said. "We've got decision-makers locked in a World War II mindset, refusing to even acknowledge that our immigration laws are broken."
Nationally, deportations have risen dramatically in the past decade, from 165,000 in 2002 to almost 410,000 in 2012. Aggressive state-level initiatives have made Hispanic populations fearful regardless of their status.
"From my perspective, it's a humanitarian issue above anything else," Nobis said. "I've heard enough from other dairy farmers to know they come from the same perspective — that they're people first and foremost, not just workers."
While he's encouraged the issue has finally made it to Congress' front burner, Nobis doesn't sound overly optimistic about the odds immigration reform faces in the House of Representatives. Current law provides some immigration programs for most employment, school and sports activities, but not dairy farms or other full-time agricultural jobs.
"I'll be honest: I don't have a lot of faith in their humanitarian instincts," Nobis said in reference to Congress. "I want to but I don't. Something's going to have to tilt the balance, and that'll only happen when the political leadership finally sees there are votes tied to it."