Wisconsin's dairy industry would collapse without the work of Latino immigrants – many of them undocumented

Maria Perez, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

ASTACINGA, VERACRUZ, Mexico – The last time Roberto Tecpile left his home in the mountains of central Veracruz, his daughter Megan was just a few weeks old. 

He hugged his wife, his parents and his children, then began the journey north to the USA, crossing through Laredo, Texas. It was the third time since Tecpile's marriage to Veronica Montalvo that he left his country to work on a Wisconsin dairy farm.

The trip, more than 2,000 miles, is not uncommon among the families in and around Astacinga. The area has almost 7,000 people. Unemployment is in the double digits and virtually everyone – 96% – lives below the poverty level. Money sent from those working in the USA is one of the only ways to build solid new homes made of concrete.  

Tecpile left five years ago and remains in Wisconsin. He works six days a week, about 10 hours a day at Rosenholm Dairy in Buffalo County. After work, he prepares dinner, takes a shower and, most evenings, calls home. Every two weeks, he heads to a grocery store in Arcadia and sends $300 to $500 to his family back in Mexico. 

Roberto Tecpile, left, a Mexican immigrant, replaces the bearings while repairing an irrigator with the help of dairy farm owner John Rosenow at Rosenholm Dairy in Cochrane.

Tecpile and Montalvo want to finish a home they are building in Astacinga – get the bathroom and kitchen done, install a tile floor, paint the walls. They hope to start their own business someday.

That means for now, Megan will know her father only through the nightly calls and by browsing photos on her mother's cellphone.

“There’s no other option,” Tecpile says.

Reliable numbers on immigrants working in the dairy industry are hard to come by.  A national survey taken five years ago for the National Milk Producers Federation estimated the immigrant workforce at 51% of the total. 

Workers in Wisconsin express little doubt immigrants account for a larger portion of the dairy industry workforce today. They don't work on just the biggest farms but also on operations that grew their herd beyond what a family can handle. 

While unemployment is low, many farmers fill openings by passing word to Mexican laborers on-site, then accept the new workers who show up without asking too many questions.

Some farmers say they haven’t encountered a U.S.-born applicant in years.

Entry-level jobs may pay $11 to $13 an hour and can include free – albeit modest – housing. The immigrants may have to work nights, milk hundreds of cows every shift, toil in the wind and snow. The job can be dangerous; not everyone makes it back to their family.

Immigrants say the jobs are a ladder to a better life; farmers say the immigrants are the only means of affordable labor. So despite the rancor that surrounds national immigration policy, the workers keep coming and the farms keep hiring. 

In dairy barns across Wisconsin, farmers and workers said there is a simple truth: Without the work of Latino immigrants – many, if not most, of them undocumented – the signature industry in America’s Dairyland would collapse. 

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Few Americans willing to do the work

Hiring immigrants caught on among Wisconsin dairy farms in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to University of Wisconsin research.

Beginning in 2004, the state increased its annual milk production every year, and beginning in 2009, it annually set records – streaks that continue to this day. In 2012, then-Gov. Scott Walker initiated an incentive program urging farmers to produce even more, in the belief that foreign markets could absorb the increase. This fall, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue essentially told family dairy farmers in Wisconsin: Get big or get out.

All of that increased production required new workers. 

John Rosenow says half of his Buffalo County farm’s 18 employees – including Tecpile – are from Mexico. He started hiring them in 1998 when he was having trouble finding local workers. 

He recalls hiring a retired state trooper. Within days, the trooper walked up his driveway and said he was leaving because he couldn’t keep pace with the milking operation. The dairy farmer kept him on but moved him to a new job.

Rosenow made his first immigrant hire after seeing an ad from a Dallas recruiting company. It sent him a worker named Manuel, who knocked out 10 hours a day for 54 days straight. When Manuel left, Rosenow hired two more Mexican workers. Over time, other farmers asked him for help hiring immigrants.

In the past 10 to 15 years, he has probably had about 150 job candidates. Only two were American-born, and neither was willing to do what was necessary, he says. One didn’t want to work on Fridays or weekends.

Omar Guerrero says his experiences are similar. During his time at Elkhart Lake’s Drake Dairy, the farm has received two job applications from American-born candidates. One  lasted through an hour of training. The other didn’t really want the job; he just needed to claim he was searching for work to avoid losing food stamps.

Omar Guerrero vaccinates a cow at Drake Dairy in Elkhart Lake.

When Guerrero arrived in Wisconsin 22 years ago, he didn’t have any difficulties finding a dairy farm job. There were barely any Latinos then. Farmers would even pay bonuses – say, $500 – to workers who could recruit newcomers.

Guerrero, now a citizen and settled with his family in the USA, started out as an undocumented immigrant, working as a milker, one of the toughest jobs on a dairy farm. At Drake Dairy, he learned more about the operation, took on new responsibilities and moved into management. Now he has a stake in the farm.

He is proud to have helped push the farm from 400 cows to 2,500. He says many of the workers are undocumented and only the ones who work outside with tractors are American-born. Across Wisconsin, he guesses, more than 90% of the immigrants in the dairy industry are undocumented.

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Pay an issue in attracting workers

Guerrero says he does not have difficulty finding workers; he’s built up a network of connections.

Some farms struggle to fill holes. They could compete for workers better if they raised wages, and some have gone to $14 and $15 an hour, Guerrero says. But for farms barely breaking even or losing money, increasing the payroll is prohibitive.

Hans Breitenmoser started to hire immigrant workers at his Merrill dairy farm 15 to 20 years ago. The farm had expanded beyond the point where his family could do the work by itself and the homegrown labor pool wasn’t there. The farm has 450 cows. Nine of the 12 hired workers are Latinos.

Breitenmoser says most dairy farmers are used to the idea of workers not being born in the USA. His parents, after all, came from Switzerland.

Starting pay on his farm is $12 and $13 an hour – a higher rate, he says, than what his farm really can afford. He acknowledges there's little vetting; hiring the first person through the door is better than being selective and ending up with no person at all.

“I’ll hire them, and I’ll cross my fingers that they turn out to be a good employee,” he says.

The dairy farm that hired Blanca Hernández and her sister Guadalupe in 2006 had never hired anyone, much less Mexican workers. Hernández was told the owners didn’t trust foreigners, but they were unable to keep doing all the work by themselves. A nearby farmer vouched for immigrant workers. Hernández and her sister became the first employees.

By the time she took the job, Hernández had earned a law degree in Mexico and had worked once before in the USA. The law degree didn't lead to a job, and the work – low-wage jobs for a cleaning company, airplane parts factory and car wash in North Carolina – didn't allow her to save.

She left her hometown of Texhuacán and headed back across because her sister Guadalupe was going with her 4-year-old daughter. Crossing the border with a child is particularly dangerous; Hernández wanted to help. Once across, they made their way to Wisconsin, where Guadalupe's partner worked. 

Blanca Hernández, center, Lucero Quechulpa, left, and Fátima Anastasio worked at dairy farms in Wisconsin or Minnesota before returning to Mexico.

Hernández says the Durand farm owners who gave them jobs were surprised to see the sisters writing down the correct number of hours for their pay – at the time, $6.25 per hour.

During their first days at the farm, the sisters cleaned the parlor in addition to milking 320 cows. The milk quality went up because the sisters were vigilant about cleanliness and sanitation. 

“If I’m going to be a street sweeper, I’m going to be a good street sweeper," Hernández says. "If I’m going to be a teacher, I’m going to be a good teacher.” 

When the farm grew to 500 cows or more, Hernández said, she was working 14 hours a day with no days off. 

The sisters told the farm owner they were returning to Texhuacán. By then, the owners had undergone a change of heart.

“After four years, the boss wept,” Hernández says.

Immigrants take on risky, difficult jobs

Dairy jobs are inherently risky.

At 6.1 injuries per 100 full-time employees in 2018, dairy workers at farms with more than 10 employees suffered higher odds of getting injured than workers in sawmills, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, that meant 6,500 injuries on those larger farms.

From 2012 through 2017, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration increased inspections of dairy farms with more than 10 employees or a temporary labor camp. At least 51 Wisconsin dairy farms were found in violation of some safety regulations during this period, according to the OSHA data. 

Mexican immigrants often work the most wearing jobs. A University of Wisconsin study in 2009 found that immigrants tended to be relegated to routine, lower-paid tasks such as  milkers or pushers, who clean manure in the barns and bring the cows to the milking parlors. When the study was done, 62% of the immigrants in the dairy workforce held one of those two jobs; 16% of the American-born workers held them.

Dairy workers averaged 57 hours of work a week and fewer than five days off each month.

Workers take care of dairy cattle at Drake Dairy in Elkhart Lake.

In New York state, according to a survey in 2014-15 of 88 immigrant dairy farmworkers – the majority working on farms with more than 500 cows – about half of the workers said they felt rushed on the job, and breaks could be as short as five minutes in a 12-hour workday.

The survey, conducted by the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York, found that more than one-fourth of the workers had suffered wage theft and two-thirds had experienced one or more injuries on the job, most of those disclosing they suffered an injury so severe it required medical attention. 

John Peck, executive director of the Madison-based advocacy group Family Farm Defenders, says he would like Wisconsin to be a leader in socially responsible milk production, which would take into account paying workers better wages and paying farmers better prices, instead of measuring only the quality of the product.

“Farmers are always struggling to find workers, especially if they are not paying people well,” he says. “But at the same time, there are farmers going bankrupt. So how can they afford to pay workers, if they are losing their farms?”

Peck says consumers may fail to connect inexpensive milk at the store with inadequate pay for farmers, and with low-wage immigrant labor.

“If you want a cheap food policy, that means that you’ll be exploiting workers,” he says. “And the workers that are going to be exploited are going to probably be undocumented immigrants.” 

Long, grueling hours

Salvador Salas worked on several farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He has good memories of one owner who made breakfast for workers and a farm that offered $12 an hour and paid overtime, as required in Minnesota.

Salvador Salas spent more than six years working at dairy farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He returned to Astacinga, Mexico, in 2019.

There also was a Wisconsin farm where he worked 11- and 12-hour split workdays without a single day off, even for Thanksgiving or Christmas, for four years. He says the farm owner rarely paid him for more than 10 hours a day, no matter how long he worked cleaning barns, herding cows, feeding calves, pushing feed, milking. He started at $7.25 an hour plus free housing. His wages topped out at $11 an hour. 

“When one needs to work, there’s no (such thing as) hard work,” says Salas, who was undocumented his entire time here.

The toughest times for Salas were the winters when it was freezing outside and he had to move tires off tarps covering mounds of feed.

“That’s when it feels uglier,” he says. “When the wind is blowing and you are on top.”

He hurt his back working on the farm, he says, and told his boss about the accident – but never asked to see a doctor. He feared the farmer might think he was lying and wouldn't help him. 

Salas returned to Mexico early this year after more than six years on U.S. dairy farms. He was worn out and wanted to see his family.

He lives in Astacinga in a home he built by adding on to his father's home, using savings from the dairy work. A chiropractor helped alleviate his back pain. 

Couple's plans cut short

Antonia Rodríguez worked in dairy longer than Salas. Her partner, Gerardo Nájera, says she used to take on 12-hour shifts before he was deported in 2012, and she had to cut back to care for their two U.S.-born children.

Her sister, Consuelo, says she would tell Antonia that working at a dairy farm was too hard, a man’s job. But her sister had never been scared of work. At 53, undocumented and living with her two younger children in a trailer that needed repairs, Antonia kept working at Clarks Mills Dairy Farm in Reedsville. 

“As a mother, one has to work in whatever you can,” Consuelo says.

The last time the sisters talked on the phone, Antonia sounded weary. It was "one of those times when one becomes sad – you miss your family, your parents, your siblings,” Consuelo says.

Nájera says the plan was for their younger kids to finish school in the USA and for Rodríguez to return one day to Ciudad Juárez. He was building their home, and she was sending money to finish it. She would tell him that she wanted to go back so they could be together.

One afternoon last March, the cows were not lined up properly at the milking parlor. Rodríguez walked up from the pit where workers attach milking machines to udders and onto a concrete pad where the cows lingered. She didn’t have a stick or any physical barrier between her and the cows.

As she tried to move them, a cow knocked her against a half wall. Other employees heard her scream, came to her aid and moved the animal away. Rodríguez was unconscious, and as the ambulance arrived at the hospital, her heart stopped and she died.

The autopsy found rib fractures and lacerations in her heart and left lung.

OSHA fined the 800-cow farm, saying it didn’t ensure employees working with cows were protected from being struck and it didn't train workers to improve safety.

For that, and another unrelated violation, the farm was fined $15,155.

Robert Goehring, co-owner of the farm, says Rodríguez had worked there since 2014, and he had personally trained her on how to move the animals. The OSHA representative said Goehring needed to train employees on animal behavior, which he says he hadn’t heard about.

Consuelo Rodríguez is taking care of her sister's younger kids, 10 and 16, so they can finish high school in the USA. She set up a small altar at home for her sister, displaying her glasses, earrings and photos. She took it down because her nephew said it made him sad.

The children speak with their father regularly.

“They say they are fine,” he says. “But one knows they aren’t.” 

Latino influence grows

The Rev. Matthew Sauer, pastor at the Manitowoc Cooperative Ministry, says that when he arrived in 2005, there were some Latino workers, but they weren’t very visible in the community. The Manitowoc School District had a 5% Hispanic enrollment. 

Sauer noticed the immigrant population rising in 2010-11.

In the most recent school year, the school district had 14% Latino enrollment. In the city of Manitowoc, there are at least five Mexican restaurants, two with small attached grocery stores. In spring, a bull-riding rodeo attracted hundreds of Latinos, many of them from nearby dairy farms.

Manitowoc is among the 30 counties in the USA with the most dairy operations, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 census.

Sauer says U.S.-born residents in the area have become more comfortable with the changing demographics. “Younger people are growing up with them, in their classes, which means that parents are meeting these cultures,” he says.

The story is similar in other rural Wisconsin communities. Though many Latino immigrants keep to themselves, their influence is unmistakable. Although many return to their hometowns, some settle in Wisconsin and start a family.

In Clark County, which ranks second in the USDA 2017 census, this month's historical society newsletter noted a recent quinceañera celebration. In Marathon County, which ranks fourth in the census, the Hispanic Soccer League, founded in 2002, changed its name to the Central Wisconsin Adult Soccer League to be more inclusive, and U.S.-born players have joined immigrants on the pitch.

Trump election sparked worries 

When Donald Trump won the presidential election after campaigning to crack down on illegal immigration, many Wisconsin dairy workers were nervous. Some left their jobs; some left the state or the country. Most kept working, and the threats never materialized.

Apolonio Sánchez says he planned to leave for Canada if Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials started to launch raids close by. His boss on a 120-cow farm in the Alma area told him not to worry, that wouldn’t happen. He stayed.

Sánchez says there are still undocumented immigrants arriving to work on the farms. There have been ICE arrests, but nothing approaching a massive crackdown.

Pablo Cruz works on a farm with more than 1,500 cows in Kewaunee County. He says most of the workers are undocumented – not only from Mexico but more recently from Honduras and El Salvador. 

Breitenmoser, the farmer from Merrill, says the rhetoric against immigrants hasn’t been good for a dairy industry that relies on workers not born in the USA. 

If all undocumented immigrants were to be deported, he says, “we would have dead cows piled up in our farms.” 

He favors a process that would provide a path for undocumented immigrants to acquire legal status. “It’s disgusting that people are treating them like criminals for working their butts off,” he says. 

Rosenow, the Buffalo County farmer, says everyone should understand the necessity of immigrants, but “I don’t see the solution happening very soon.”

A push for path to residency

The American Dairy Coalition and the National Milk Producers Federation have pushed to get dairy farms access to foreign agricultural guest workers through a visa program that is limited to seasonal work, such as crop harvesting. Dairy farms can’t hire these guest workers for year-round work.

The American Dairy Coalition has supported replacing the guest worker program with one that would eliminate some worker protections, such as the requirement to pay a prevailing wage. 

Workers advocate groups pushed for a path to permanent residency and citizenship, which the National Milk Producers Federation supported. The worker advocate groups resisted efforts to expand the guest worker program, saying it leaves workers in a position to be exploited. Under the program, if a worker doesn't do what an employer asks without complaint, the employer can fire the worker, which in general means the end of his or her visa.  

In Wisconsin, Peck, with Family Farm Defenders, says undocumented immigrants are essential to the dairy economy and part of Wisconsin’s rural communities. “If they are so integral to our economy, why can’t they become citizens?” he asked.

In November, after months of negotiations that included agribusiness representatives and workers groups, 49 U.S. House members co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would provide undocumented farmworkers and family members with a path to citizenship. It would allow dairy farms access to thousands of agricultural guest workers for year-round jobs and would dedicate an additional 40,000 green cards per year for agricultural workers. 

Agricultural employers could sponsor workers' getting green cards, and some seasonal guest workers could apply directly. The bill would create a pilot program with visas allowing workers to move freely among agricultural employers.

The bill would require agricultural employees to use the E-verify program to check whether immigrants are authorized to work. The bill has been referred to four House committees. If passed, it could face an uphill battle in the Senate.

No Wisconsin representative has co-sponsored the bill.

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Border crossings more difficult

Tecpile says he would love to travel home, but there's no guarantee he could get back. Crossing the border on the way north is riskier and more expensive, he says. The smugglers, called coyotes, who guide and transport immigrants illegally ask for $8,000 or more.

When Trump was elected, Tecpile says, he never thought of leaving. He knew American farmers need workers too much.

“I didn’t pay attention," he says. "I had to work.”

In Mexico, Montalvo, his wife, says it’s hard to be separated this long.

Roberto Tecpile's wife, Verónica Montalvo, and his mother, Concepciona Acahua, put the money he sends from his job in Wisconsin into the home the family is building in Astacinga, México.

Megan has never had a birthday party when she could hug her father. She wants him to take her to school. She wants him home.

“Sometimes my daughter needs her dad, but he isn’t here,” Montalvo says. “She knows he is working.”

Their son Kevin, 16, says holidays and other special occasions are tough.

“When all the family gathers, he isn’t here,” he says.

Many of Kevin's friends, he says, also have parents working in the USA who stay away for five or six years at a time. He says he should go to Wisconsin, work on a dairy farm, be with his father and build "a good future."

He isn’t afraid of trying to cross the border, an attempt that has left many migrants dead. His mother doesn’t want him to go yet. He is too young.

Maybe, she says, he could try crossing after he turns 18. 

Contributing: Andrew Mollica

For this story, reporter Maria Perez of the Journal Sentinel staff interviewed immigrants in Spanish, translated their words into English, then checked back with them to make sure the phrasing was correct.

Email her at maria.perez@jrn.com; follow her on Twitter: @mariajpsl.

The Dairyland in Distress series is produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center. The center, a nonprofit organization that supports in-depth journalism projects, played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of the project.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin dairy farms rely on immigrant workers, undocumented laborers