Business Columns & Blogs

Idaho’s dairy industry deals with workforce challenges, trade wars

Jerry Brady
Jerry Brady

The Idaho dairy industry makes no bones about its dependence on undocumented workers, defending them openly and consistently.

The Dairymen’s Association’s web site makes this clear, declaring that of 8,100 on-dairy jobs, “85-90 percent … are filled by foreign born labor.” Furthermore, “Without those jobs, none of 31,300 supporting jobs would exist.” According to a recent industry-funded study, almost 40,000 Idaho jobs, including 3,700 in cheese and milk processing and a $10.4 billion economic output, depend on those 8,100 foundational, on-dairy workers.

Like agriculture throughout the country, Idaho dairies depend on Immigration and Cultural Enforcement (ICE) not shutting them down and decimating entire communities. Workers would appear to be comparatively safe behind such larger companies and industries.

Nonetheless, all is not well down on the dairy farm. The looming international trade war is dropping milk prices in an industry deriving 25 percent of its revenue from exports. Long term, without some system to admit foreign workers, expansion and replacement of today’s workforce will be impossible.

Nearly all of Idaho’s dairy workers come from Mexico, but as Mexico’s economy has improved and the United States has become more hostile, net Mexican immigration has dropped close to zero – popular American assumptions to the contrary notwithstanding. Those families recently separated at the border? They came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, countries destabilized by the CIA in years past and dominated by gangs supplying drugs to users in the U.S.

Only 8 percent of Idaho’s on-dairy workers now come from Guatemala; however, it will be to Guatemala and similar countries that Idaho must turn for future workers, says Rick Naerebout, the industry’s director. If we can’t do so, milk production will move out of country, where food safety standards are more lax.

Last year Rick replaced his widely respected father, Bob, who guided Idaho dairy’s massive growth for 20-plus years. Bob now works at reforming the nation’s immigration laws, traveling to Washington and serving on a reform-driven organization’s board. A futile mission? A moral obligation, Bob says, remembering the men and women who are the foundation of Idaho dairies and a big portion of our economy.

Jerry Brady is a member of Compassionate Boise, and is a lawyer and former newspaper publisher.