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.

“This is Soviet-style economic planning… One of the most breathtaking examples of central planing the government has ever proposed,” said Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which argues that tighter immigration policies will spur wages and jobs for Americans, and may even boost broad middle-class support for the GOP.

Worse, by using government to manage the farms’ labor costs, Ryan is choking technological advances, especially at the large farms that use much human labor, Krikorian charged.

“If farmers are expecting to be able to import more foreign [cheap] labor, then the [financial] argument for taking on a loan to buy one of these machines is weaker,” he said.

If the Immigration and Naturalization Service “came in tomorrow and cleared out the immigrant labor, we’d have a pile of robots to put out,” said robot salesman Steiner. The robots sold by Steiner are assembled in Iowa by the U.S. division of Lely, the Dutch firm which developed and perfected the robots in Europe.

European companies developed the robots, partly because their labor costs are higher, said Steiner. “That’s big thing… Europe doesn’t have the available cheap immigrant labor that we have,” he said.

“There’s no cheap labor over there… [but] we have Mexican labor” that has delayed the deployment of the robots, said Segner.

Other agricultural entrepreneurs are also turning to robots.

Bob Thorp, vice president of production at Growers Express, told National Public Radio in June that he’s looking for ways to further mechanize planting and picking vegetables. “The labor [shortage] is the worst that I’ve seen, ever since I can remember… Any way we can mechanize and take labor out of the equation, we’re looking at it,” he said.

Ryan is “not a Luddite, but he seems to think you can freeze economic and technological change,” said Krikorian. “It is an old-fashioned way of looking at things, like the Big Three auto-companies thought they could stop history in 1962.”

Krikorian’s critique of mass immigration’s  impact on the nation’s technology sector is echoed by David Gorak, the Wisconsin-based head of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, which opposes large-scale immigration. For example, he said, the federal program intended for “high-tech” guest-workers is actually being used each year to push roughly 25,000 Wisconsinites out of many types of skilled jobs, he said. “What we are seeing is the program is used to fill positions in occupations like pharmacists, managers, teachers and graphic arts,” he said.

During the August recess, Gorak is working with other Tea Party and immigration reformers at NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform to stop the immigration push.

Ryan’s office denied the charge that his policies would constrain the free market.

“The federal government shouldn’t restrict farmers’ choices to promote one form of technology. It’s never good policy to pick winners and losers. Congressman Ryan believes immigration reform will help confront the challenges in the agricultural sector,” said a statement from a Ryan spokesman.

Jaime Castaneda, vice president for strategic initiatives and trade policy at the National Milk Producers Federation, also downplayed alternatives to immigrant labor on farms.

“People are coming up with more and more ideas how to make certain things more efficient, but there are certain things that will never be replaced. [For example] humans picking up strawberries and peaches is always going to be that way,” Castaneda said.

The use of milking machines is very limited, he added, although “it works great for those who actually do it.”

In the dairy industry, 70 percent of farms have migrant labor, he said. At many of the smaller farms, laborers are needed because the farmers are getting too old to keep pace with the milking schedule.

But that’s one of the main reasons why robot sales are accelerating, said Segner. Older farmers are buying the robots rather than hiring immigrants, he said.

One unexpected benefit of the robots, said Segner, is that farmers’ sons and daughters are more willing to join their parents on the farms if they don’t have to milk the cows every day of every year.

When he shows the machines to locals schools, Segner said, “I ask ‘How many of you are interested in taking over the family farm?’ [and] a lot of hands go up.”

“My mission is to save as many of the family farms as possible,” Segner added.

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