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Minnesota’s struggling dairy farmers seek out Latino workers

Seventeen years ago, Paul and Craig Gjerde went all in on the dairy operation they run with their father in west-central Minnesota, expanding their herd from 125 cows to 300 and building a barn and milking parlor.

The Gjerdes have milked their share of cows and can do so if they need to, but with so many other duties — growing crops, feeding the animals, managing the farm’s finances — the men wouldn’t be able to run their operation efficiently without a few hired hands.

Yet, in recent years, finding people willing to work on the dairy farm, with its twice-a-day-milkings, physical demands and odd hours, has been difficult. Fortunately for the Gjerdes, they have found what they need in the Latino immigrant population that lives in the Willmar area. These days, four Latino employees milk the cows in the afternoon, clean the stalls and milking machines and then milk the cows again in the early morning, around 2:30 a.m.

“We need them,” Paul Gjerde said of his crew. “I don’t know how we would do it without them.”

It wasn’t always this way. The brothers remember when high school or college students would stop by, looking for work baling hay or doing the other tough jobs on farms. That hasn’t happened for 20 years; the only people willing to work on their farm these days, the brothers say, are Latinos, new to the country and looking to make a living.

The hub of the Gjerde enterprise is Paul Gjerde’s farm site five miles south of Sunburg, an old Norwegian settlement that still celebrates Syttende Mai (Norway’s independence day) and whose sole café still serves Klub (a Norwegian potato dumpling) every day.

From a distance, the farm is but a cluster of buildings that fades into an endless horizon of snow-covered fields dotted by groves of trees. Years ago, it was one of many dairy farms around here; now, it’s the only one in Kandiyohi County’s Arctander Township.

On a recent cold December day, Michelle Rodriquez hooked cows up to machines in a 16-stall milking parlor, eight cows on either side of her. Originally from El Salvador, Rodriquez has been working on the farm for about five years. She grew up on a small farm with chickens and pigs, so the surroundings here are comforting, the work familiar.

“I like the cows. And the work — it’s not too hard for me,” she said in halting English. She added, with a laugh, “the weather is bad, though. Driving (in the snow) is bad! But otherwise it’s fine.”

With her mother and two sisters living in Willmar, and two brothers in New York, Rodriguez said she had no plans to return to Central America, where her father remains. Minnesota was safe, with more opportunities to earn a paycheck, she said.

Nathan Hulinsky, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, said many dairy farmers, navigating a tight labor market, have found a source of workers in the Latino community.

“A lot of Hispanics don’t seem to mind the physical labor,” he said. “They are willing to take that job at a price that works for both sides, whereas I think some in the non-immigrant workforce maybe say, ‘I can go uptown and get the same money and an easier job.'”

The construction industry is one of the main competitors for dairy farmers who are looking for workers, Hulinsky said. Another one, at least in this region of the state, is turkey processing — namely the Jennie-O Turkey Store plant in Willmar. The Gjerdes were paying their workers $12.50 an hour in November, roughly comparable to what they believed was Jennie-O’s $13.50 wage for unskilled labor. (Recent job postings showed Jennie-O offering a starting wage of $14 for general production workers.)

To work for the Gjerdes, workers must provide a Social Security Number or a Green Card, a federal document that allows immigrants to live and work in the United States. A survey for the National Milk Producers Federation showed that Latinos make up about half the workforce at dairy farms around the country. Statistics for Minnesota were not available.

In addition to finding workers, many challenges perplex the small dairy farmer: this year’s unusually wet growing season, competition from large-scale dairy operations, changing consumer habits and, perhaps most significantly, volatile milk prices. (In 2018, the price per-hundredweight of milk – how dairy farmers are paid – hovered around $14 or $15, down about $10 from record highs reached four years earlier. (It inched back up in 2019 and reached about $19 in December).

The stress is showing. According to the state Department of Agriculture, Minnesota had 2,763 dairy farms at the start of 2019 and had 2,536 in November — a drop of about 8%. (The agency bases its numbers on dairy farm licenses).

Obert Gjerde, Paul and Craig’s 80-year-old father, still helps on the farm. It’s been a good life — challenging but rewarding. But he’s not sure he’d recommend it to his grandchildren — not now, anyway, with commodity prices the way they are. “You worked hard and you did well,” he said in summing up his life’s credo. “It’s not necessarily that way anymore.”

The future of dairy farming, perhaps, can be found a few miles south of the Gjerde farm, where acquaintances run an 1,800-head operation. Or a bit to the west, where a massive dairy operation milks about 8,100 cows a day.

The brothers don’t want to sell their herd or do anything else. They do wonder, however, about trying something different – perhaps selling bottled milk to the wealthy cabin owners who live on lakes throughout the region. It will take some creativity to survive. They have also talked about joining a recent trend in dairy farming: robotic milking.

For now, they hang on, thankful for the Latino workers who have helped to keep their operation afloat, who have proven to be reliable, who have made friends with Paul Gjerde’s children. “They’re good workers. They show up on time and they’re big on cleanliness,” he said. “These guys are really good.”

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