SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Unable to find enough workers to carry out the painstaking tasks of milk production, dairy producers in South Dakota hope to tap into a different labor force: unemployed residents of Puerto Rico.
It could be a tonic both for dairy operators and Puerto Rico, where the jobless rate stands at 12 percent but workers are far freer to travel to the U.S. for jobs than immigrants due to the island's status as a U.S. territory.
South Dakota dairy farms produced 209 million pounds of milk in 2016, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. That's far less than the more commonly known milk-producing states of California and Wisconsin, but the state's pilot project to find another labor source is gaining attention.
"If this is successful, this would be a significant success for the U.S. dairy industry, certainly South Dakota's industry," said Jaime Castaneda, senior vice president of the National Milk Producers Federation. "So, we are watching it. We are looking at what happens."
Certain agricultural industries are allowed to hire foreign-born workers seasonally under a visa category, but dairy farms do not qualify because they operate year-round. A study commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation released in June 2015 concluded immigrant labor accounts for 51 percent of all dairy labor in the U.S.
The proposal from a team of agriculture experts to recruit a labor force from the Caribbean island to work on South Dakota's dairies would eliminate the need for a visa because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Experts from the South Dakota State University Extension hope to bring about 20 workers by September.
They hosted recruiting sessions in November and December in three Puerto Rican communities that are home to dairies and addressed topics such as the farm routine, weather and cost of living. Of the 28 people who attended the sessions, half had an agricultural background. Others were electricians, nurses and construction workers. More sessions are planned for May.
The team is focused on developing a program that would help the workers adjust to life in the Great Plains. Karla Hernandez, an SDSU Extension forage field specialist, said producers in South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin who have hired Puerto Ricans have seen them last only short periods on the job after realizing the demands, pay and the stark differences between the two places.
"Say you have a person from Mexico who gets here, that person will stick around because he has a need to provide for himself and for his family back in Mexico. Now if you get a Puerto Rican and he doesn't like the job, he can go home very easily because he doesn't need to wait for any visa or passport," Hernandez said.
It's no secret that immigrant labor is crucial at many agricultural enterprises in the U.S. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that about 80 percent of the agricultural labor force is foreign born and over half is unauthorized to work in the U.S.
Castaneda said his organization is not speculating about what the incoming Trump administration might do in terms of immigration. But he said the group will continue to pressure Congress and the administration to approve changes that would allow immigrant dairy workers to stay in the U.S. for at least three years with the option of reapplying after a stay in their home countries.
For those who doubt the need of foreign-born workers on dairy farms, Walt Bones, part owner of the Turner County Dairy and former South Dakota secretary of agriculture, has a succinct answer: U.S.-born workers don't want to work that hard.
"They're not hungry enough to improve themselves that they don't want to work that hard. I think it's that simple," said Bones, whose dairy farm has 1,600 cows that are milked three times a day. "It's not easy work. It's repetitive, but at the same time, it's not bad work."
Gerson Cardona, a Guatemala native, began working on a dairy farm in South Dakota 15 years ago at the age of 15 by milking and washing cows. These days, he cares for days-old calves.
"If one enjoys the job, one can persevere," Cardona said in Spanish during a break. "If one enjoys working with the animals, then that's what motivates one to learn more and stay in one place. This (job) is a good source to be able to do something with one's life."