US

It’s robots vs. immigrants in Paul Ryan’s dairy district

Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

GOP budget chief and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan says he wants to pass a major immigration rewrite because his home-state Wisconsin dairy farmers will go bust without a steady supply of low-wage immigrant workers.

However, those dairy farmers are increasingly hiring robots to milk their cows.

Farmers’ “first reaction is disbelief… [but] once people do purchase them and put them in, it’s definitely a life-changing event,” said Adam Steiner, a robot salesman in Stratford, Wisconsin, for Iowa-based Lely USA Inc.

Without the cow-milking robots, farmers’ lives are tied to their cows’ milking schedule.

“Seven days a week, two or three times a day, every single solitary day, no breaks for Christmas, no breaks for your birthday, you have to milk those cows,” said Gregg Abts, a robot-salesman in New Franken, Wisconsin.

The cows use the new robots when they wish, and the robots only need maintenance every 20,000 milkings, so the farmers are free to set their own schedules, such as attending their kids’ school events while monitoring the milking via their smartphones, Steiner said.

Labor shortages are also pushing demand, in part, because not even immigrants want to milk cows every day of the year, said Justin Segner, a robot salesman in Belleville, Wisc., who sold nine robots last year, and expects to sell 23 of the $200,000 robots this year.

“It is very hard to find legal labor [and] the immigrant labor is drying up,” said Segner, whose sales territory covers Ryan’s district in southeast Wisconsin.

“There’s a lot of smaller farms, 60 to 240 cow dairies, and the robot milking machine makes it possible [for them] to stay in business,” said Segner. “It is saving the small family farms,” partly by increasing the willingness of young Americans to become farmers, he said.

Demand for the robots will spike if the federal government enforces the existing immigration laws, said Steiner, who has sold five robots so far this year, after selling 17 in the previous four years.

“Overnight…if the immigrant labor force becomes harder to get, there’s going to be more and more robots,” he said.

But Ryan wants the federal government to provide a never-ending supply of cheap labor to his state’s dairy industry and is pushing GOP legislators to back a far-reaching rewrite of immigration law.

A Democrat-drafted version passed the Senate in June. That plan could boost immigration to 46 million people by 2033, and give the Democratic Party tens of millions of new voters in a decade or two. The push is supported by some GOP leaders because some business leaders want millions of new customers and laborers, and also because it might reduce Latino turnout in the 2016 election, when the GOP will try to win the White House.

Ryan is quietly championing passage of a bill.

“The dairy farmers in western Wisconsin are having a hard time finding anyone to help them produce their products, which are mostly cheese,” Ryan said in a July 25 interview with National Journal.

“If they can’t find workers, then they can’t produce, and we’ll end up importing,” he claimed.

The dairy industry can’t afford to solve the problem by offering higher wages to attract new workers, Ryan added. “You raise wages too much in certain industries, then you’ll get rid of those industries, and we’ll just have to import.”

Instead, House Republicans should regulate the labor market to ensure that the dairy industry has sufficient low-wage workers, he suggested.

“That’s something we’re going to negotiate here. Most other countries have a visa system that is wired to feed their economy [with workers]… Most of our visas are for relatives, not for workers,” Ryan said.

The Senate bill would provide 337,000 multi-year visas for agricultural workers every five years, and set dairy guest-workers’ wages at $11.37 an hour.