Dairy farmers all across the country and in the Capital Region are feeling the pain of a depressed dairy economy, and immigration and trade issues are further complicating matters.
Dairy farms drive New York State's agriculture economy yet milk prices have been down since 2014. The New York Farm Bureau says the state had about 900 more dairy farms just five years ago than it does now. For years, dairies have not had access to temporary work visas for migrant workers, and President Trump's trade war is also taking a toll.
"Labor costs are very expensive for our farmers and production costs in general, and farms don’t set their own prices," said Steve Ammerman, New York Farm Bureau Public Affairs manager. "It’s a price formula dictated by a Milk Marketing Order, set by the federal government, so anytime production costs go up [farmers] can’t simply just pass it on to the consumer."
Labor is expensive, in part, because dairies cannot hire migrant workers on federal H2-A guest worker visas.
"H2-A is a federal guest worker program, and it’s only for farms that need seasonal work. In other words, they contract with workers in other countries to come over on a specific start date, and they have to leave by a certain end date," Ammerman said. "Typically that coincides with planting and harvesting, and farmers will submit their applications to the Department of Labor. The DOL will go through, matching up workers with a farm, the farm then pays for those workers to come to this country and there is a set wage. This year, it’s over $13 an hour.
The farms typically pay housing and a number of other benefits for those farm workers, and then at the end of the contract those workers have to return home. So it’s just for seasonal farms. Dairy workers, or dairy farms, who need year-round labor to take care of the animals, cannot take advantage of this program."
And people in the area typically just are not up for the work.
"We've always been concerned about the ability to attract labor," said Eric Ooms, a dairy farmer of A. Ooms & Sons in Valatie. "People that just want to milk cows or get dirty all day. Working with animals isn't everyone's cup of tea."
Ammerman echoed the concern.
"It can be long hours, it can be very hard work at times, and more and more they are finding that people in their communities do not want to do that," Ammerman said.
So a few years ago, the Ooms family turned to a robotic milking system. The system, which scans a "fitness tracker" type device on each cow's collar, brings up detailed information about each Holstein as it walks into a designated area.
The computer knows which cow it is, how much milk she should produce, and how long it usually takes for the robotic system to milk her. The system then cleans the cow's teats. It uses a laser measuring system to line up the device to milk and also lowers an arm with feed — also tracked in the system — so the cow can get nourished while she's being milked.
Everything is measured in real-time and the system can even tell if a foreign substance, like blood, ended up in the milk. Ooms said it's so advanced that the computer can break down detailed information about the milk itself, he previously would get in a monthly report after his milk was shipped out.
But in addition to all the robot can do, it also saves him and his brother a lot of time.
"So before, we'd have two people spending about 16 hours a day [milking] them twice a day, now we have one person spending approximately four hours to milk them almost three times a day," Ooms said.
Because New York's biggest agricultural producer cannot hire workers to help, the Farm Bureau is advocating to change that.
"We’ve been advocating for that with our lawmakers in Washington. I think there’s a real understanding amongst our Congressional delegation that this has to change, but politics being what they are in Washington and all the issues around immigration right now, it’s been very difficult," Ammerman said.
He continued, "The industry has been hurting and we haven’t seen any movement. There’s been a lot of talk about immigration lately on the enforcement side of things, and while border security is important, we have to think big picture. If we want to be able to produce food in this country, if we want to be able to have the jobs that are important to our rural economy, and if we don’t want to rely on food from other countries, we’re gonna have to look at a way to make sure that we have the workforce that’s needed to do the job on our farms and that’s gonna take serious immigration reform."
And while the robotic system the Ooms family uses increases production, it came at a signficiant financial investment, while supply and demand did not chang. NAFTA has been replaced but it's still not official, and tariffs are still in place.
"Our biggest customer, Mexico, still has a tariff on U.S. dairy. So as long as those tariffs remain and that deal isn't finished, we haven't fixed anything," Ooms said.
While Ooms says he understands what President Trump is trying to accomplish, it's hurting farmers and ranchers in the meantime.
"It's really, really hard to have faith in that it'll all work out when it's your family you're trying to feed," Ooms said.
While dairy farmers wait out the downturn, many are turning to other options so they don't have to close up shop completely. The Ooms family diversifies their product by growing and selling corn specifically used as feed for livestock around the state.
Other farmers choose to get into other dairy products like cheese or yogurt, but it takes more milk to make both of those, and that drives up the production cost.