Hispanic workers do much of work on large dairiesJenner Almeda was willing to discuss why he moved from Brazil to work on a South Dakota dairy farm — but he had to keep working as he talked.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Jenner Almeda was willing to discuss why he moved from Brazil to work on a South Dakota dairy farm — but he had to keep working as he talked.
That meant his right arm was buried deep inside a cow as he checked to see if it was pregnant. He wore a long rubber glove as he fielded questions.
Almeda said he enjoys his job as a herdsman for Turner County Dairies.
“Oh yeah, I love it,” he said. “It’s all I can do.”
Almeda is one of two dozen Hispanic workers employed by the dairy, which is owned by South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Walt Bones in partnership with some relatives and neighbors.
Several of the workers live in houses and trailers on or near the farm. They have a short commute to work, which comes in handy, especially in the winter.
Almeda works six days a week, averaging 50 or more hours per week. For this he is paid about $10 per hour and receives benefits, including health insurance.
The housing is provided at a minimal cost: $100 per month per person, with utilities and other bills included.
In one of the houses located a few hundred yards from the barns, five men share a house. They have satellite dishes, which enable them to pick up the Spanish language channels they watch.
Fairly new cars are parked by the houses and trailers and the grounds are tidy.
“They have everything,” said the dairy manager, Steve Bossman. “They have cable, computers, cell phones, the Internet.”
Darwin Kurtenbach, who has been the administrator for South Dakota Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Program since 1989, said the Bones’ dairy operation is common.
“There is a lot of immigration labor in the dairy business in South Dakota,” Kurtenbach said. “As more have come in, I would say the majority have immigration workers on their staff.”
Alvaro Garcia, a professor and dairy extension specialist at South Dakota State University’s Dairy Science Department, in Brookings, said there’s one reason so many of the people working at dairies are from other countries.
“Very simply, because they can’t find Americans to take that work,” Garcia said.
SDSU offers training courses in hygienic milk harvesting for dairy workers. Instructors visit a farm and offer one-hour sessions on a variety of topics. They have done more than 1,000 such seminars so far, Garcia said.
It’s not just the people working on dairy farms who offer tremendous diversity. The SDSU Dairy Science Department has professors and staffers from many nations.
“The more qualified are the ones who get the position,” said Garcia, who said “the cream of the crop” of dairy professionals and educators are applying to work at SDSU.
The Dairy Department has assisted other nations with dairy enhancement programs — “in Central America and Turkey, you name it,” he said — to help those countries’ dairy industries become more profitable.
Trained in Florida
Almeda, 35, said he was persuaded to come to the United States by his uncle, who works in Wisconsin. Almeda said he didn’t want to go to Wisconsin, so he ended up in South Dakota.
Like many others, he was trained to work with dairy herds through a program sponsored by the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Service.
Herdsman Ramiro Arana, 45, is from Guatemala. He said he has been in the United States for 20 years and has worked for Turner County Dairy for about eight years, leaving once but later returning.
“I like my job,” Arana said. “I like everything.”
Both herdsmen speak a bit of English, while Bossman said he speaks enough Spanish to get by. While Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, there was no evidence it is spoken at the dairy.
Arana lives in Sioux Falls and drives to work each day.
Sometimes, when the weather is ferocious and the roads are hazardous, workers will stay at employee housing rather than go home, Bossman said.
If workers can’t make it, others will work double shifts, or might work eight hours, take eight hours off and then work another shift.
Dotanna Garcia, 26, has been milking cows for Bones for three years.
Her mother, a brother, two sisters and a cousin have all worked for the dairy in the past seven years.
Garcia is a short, slender woman, but she moved through the milking process with ease.
She cleaned the cows’ udders and teats before attaching the automatic milkers, which drain the milk from a cow in about seven minutes.
“I like it,” Garcia said, eyeing Bones and Bossman.
“Tell them to give me a raise,” she said with a smile, and both men laughed at being teased by their employee.
The day Garcia spoke to a pair of Daily Republic journalists, she had just returned to work after giving birth to a child three months earlier. She said the work wasn’t too difficult, but she did miss her baby.
Garcia said she was “not sure” if she would stay in the United States or move home to her native Guatemala at some point.
When an employee departs, takes another job or is fired, filling a position is easy, Bossman said.
“I tell some of the guys, ‘Hey, I need a guy,’” he said. “I’d say in two days I’ll have four guys here.”
Bones said Bossman is a good boss and treats the employees well. If he didn’t, people would quit and there’d be no one to milk the cows, he said.
It’s important to pay competitive wages, Bones said, but it’s crucial to provide good working conditions to retain good workers.
Bossman said he keeps a close eye on how his workers treat the cattle.
“As far as abusing the cattle, if I ever see that, they’re gone,” he said.
“It’s just not tolerated,” Bones said. “These cattle pay their wages.”
Almeda said while he lives and works on the dairy farm, he gets out in the area to attend church, shop and socialize.
“Of course!” he said with a broad smile.
Racism or unkind comments or treatment are rare events, he said. Almeda said he notices a few people looking at him and whispering, but he doesn’t let it bother him.
“There are nice people everywhere, and bad people everywhere,” he said.
Almeda said he feels well treated at Turner County Dairy. He worked for dairy operations in Mitchell and Letcher and claims he wasn’t paid. Here, he is always paid and treated well, he said.
Bones said he insists on proper treatment for his employees. It’s only right, he said, and if it doesn’t occur, the workers will take other jobs.
“We have some leave from time to time, go work construction,” Bossman said.
But he said many have worked for him for five years or longer. Bossman said he likes to employ Hispanic workers.
“It’s not just the hard work. They’re dependable,” he said. “This is a 365-day, 24-hour-a-day job.”
He employed a few Chinese workers about six or seven years ago, and when the dairy opened 15 years ago the plan was to employ local high school students and farm wives, Bones said.
But most of those workers departed after a short time and Bones and his partners realized their ideal employees were Hispanics willing to work long days for relatively modest wages.
“It’s not a job — the milking part of it — that everyone wants to do,” Bones said.
Stace Nelson, a rural Hanson County resident and Republican state representative, is a leader in an effort to oppose a planned mega-dairy in his county.
Nelson said he has many reasons to oppose it, including concerns about waste disposal, damage to roads and the simple fact that most people he’s spoken with don’t want it in their county.
But he said he is also greatly concerned about the men and women who will work there. Many, perhaps most, will be illegal workers, Nelson said.
“From just my understanding of a study, 41 percent of dairy workers in Wisconsin were admittedly illegal,” he said. “It’s a huge concern for people in this community,”
Nelson was a naval investigator for a decade before he returned home. He said it’s not just that he fears the people milking cows and doing other chores will be in the United States illegally.
He said that according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, illegal, transient workers are among the top couriers of illegal drugs into communities. Many are also involved in identify theft, Nelson said.
“There’s tons of illegal activity that goes to support that lifestyle,” he said.
Nelson said he believes that because the workers are illegal, they live a very low-key, secretive lifestyle and send much of the pay back to their home countries, with plans to return home at some point.
“You’re talking about a mass amount of money being funneled out of our community, out of our state, out of our country,” he said.
Nelson said he was “lobbied heavily” by dairy interests who were against proposed tighter laws on illegal immigrants during the 2011 legislative session.
“Obviously, if they didn’t have illegal immigrants, they wouldn’t have trouble with us moving those bills forward,” he said.
Nelson denied racism is a factor in his opposition. He said “my beautiful wife” is a “beautiful shade of brown” and is a legal immigrant from The Philippines.
“No, I don’t see that,” he said. “I personally have huge respect for legal immigrants.”
Cory Allen Heidelberger, who blogs about South Dakota politics and issues at MadvilleTimes.com, said he fears some of the concern over Hispanic workers at dairies may have racial motivations.
“This is a tricky issue, as evidenced by my interaction with Stace Nelson on the Hanson County dairy issue,” Heidelberger wrote. “It’s pretty clear that a lot of the opposition to Michael Crinion’s dairy plan comes from local folks who don’t want Mexicans running around town. The racial/ethnic undertones of such opposition make me nervous.
“That said, I feel comfortable saying that there is a lot of illegal immigration supporting our ag industry,” Heidelberger said. “Howard’s beef plant was busted for illegal immigration violations; so was Veblen dairy. If we are investing in an industry that can only run on illegal immigrant labor, then we have a serious problem. Relying on illegal immigrants means employers are profiting by breaking the law and exploiting vulnerable people. That’s bad on all counts.”
He said he feels every employer who hires illegal immigrants should face criminal charges.
“No whining allowed: if you hire someone, you verify they are legal to work here,” Heidelberger said. “If you can’t afford to do that, you don’t go into business. Dry up the demand for illegal labor, and you solve the illegal immigration problem.
“I have no problem with the hiring of legal immigrants,” he said. “If folks are willing to leave their homeland to come try to make a better living in South Dakota, then more power to them. And who are we, sons and daughters of immigrants all, to complain about that?”
Efforts to ensure legal status
Bones, who hires primarily Hispanic workers for his two large dairy operations, said his employees are all on a Dakotacare medical and dental plan. The dairy pays 70 percent of the costs and employees pay 30 percent.
There is no 401K or retirement plan, Bones said, and the employees are given six days of paid vacation annually.
Ensuring Hispanic and other workers are in the country legally is primarily a task for employers in South Dakota.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offers E-Verify, a system to check a worker’s legal status. Hilltop Dairy, located by Elkton, uses it, according to its owners.
According to the UCIS website, “E-Verify is an Internet-based system that compares information from an employee’s Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, to data from U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records to confirm employment eligibility.”
Bones said he relies on his employees to be honest about their legal status in the country and his company asks for driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and other documents.
“We have looked at using E-Verify in the past, but I am not a big believer in the system,” he said. “A 2010 report done for the U.S. government by the Westat research group found that E-Verify failed to detect illegal workers 54 percent of the time because the system can’t detect identity fraud.
“With less than a 50 percent success rate, I still think some form of employee or combination employee/employer funded guest worker permitting process would be much more valuable.”
Shawn Neudauer, who works in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Public Affairs, said investigations are not conducted without advance information.
“All ICE investigations are based on leads, tips and investigative intelligence,” Neudauer said in an e-mail response to The Daily Republic.
He said he had searched records and spoke to ICE agents, but he found no evidence of arrests or raids of dairies in South Dakota. But he said since federal agents often transfer into and out of offices, it’s difficult to tell what has happened in the past.
“That is not a statistic they normally would track,” Neudauer said.