When dairy farmers, Olga and Wilfried Reuvekamp, immigrated to South Dakota from the Netherlands and purchased a dairy in Elkton, S.D., they were ready for a new challenge.
“We were ready for something new. A new challenge, a new ambition,” says Olga Reuvekamp, of the move the family made five years ago.
Upgrading from a 175-cow dairy to a 2,000-cow dairy provided just the challenge they were looking for.
To maintain a herd this size, and the 140,000-gallons of daily milk production, the Reuvekamps depend on 33 employees. Milking, feeding, bedding and caring for the cows keeps their team working around the clock.
Like many South Dakota dairy producers, Reuvekamp says training and retaining an employee group of this size presents many challenges.
“We’re not professional HR people. We’re dairy producers,” says Reuvekamp, who spends her days managing payroll, environmental and safety certifications and several hours each week monitoring her employees’ work status and visa paperwork.
More than half of Hilltop Dairy’s employees are immigrant workers. Reuvekamp says although they can depend on their local community to fill some positions on their dairy, for other positions, only immigrant workers are willing to fill them.
“What we like about immigrant workers is their work ethic. They are motivated to work,” Reuvekamp says.
This is not uncommon says Alvaro Garcia, associate professor in the Dairy Science department at South Dakota State University. Because of the labor-intensive nature of dairy work, Garcia says many South Dakota dairies have come to rely largely on an immigrant workforce.
“Immigrant workers come to dairies looking for opportunities to work,” says Garcia.
David Skaggs, dairy development specialist with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture says immigrant workers’ willingness to work – even the more labor intensive jobs – is the reason so many dairies in the state depend on them.
“We have a society where everyone wants a white-collar job. No one wants to be down in the trenches working anymore,” says Skaggs. “We all want to eat, but no one wants to get their hands dirty growing the food or milking it.”
Training & paperwork
Even though Reuvekamp says there are always workers interested in working for Hilltop Dairy, because of the challenges paperwork and competing jobs present, retaining a team of trained employees is a challenge.
“For dairies there are no good work visas,” says Reuvekamp.
She explains that most, although not all, work visas are seasonal.
“The dairy industry is not a seasonal industry – we need our employees 365 days a year,” she says.
She adds that unless an employee has a green card, which is flexible, most work visas are specific to a job.
“So if we want to hire a new immigrant worker and they have a work visa related to their current job, it can take up to two months to get the paperwork for Hilltop Dairy and we can actually hire them,” says Reuvekamp.
Reuvekamp helps her employees keep their paperwork current. She relies on the services of an immigration lawyer in Minneapolis to help.
After hiring a new employee, she uses E-Verify, a program of Homeland Security and Social Security to ensure an employee’s legal status.
Once an employee is hired and trained, there is no guarantee they will choose to stay on. Employee turnover is a challenge many dairies face, says Garcia.
“Sometimes you train an individual and then lose them to a better offer,” he says, adding that seasonal jobs like construction often compete with a dairy’s summer workforce.
Create a friendly work ennvironment
Providing an employee-friendly work environment is one way dairy producers can work to retain employees says Garcia. He encourages dairy producers to learn some Spanish so they can give instructions and feedback to employees.
“We always require that employees learn English, so I’m not asking employers to write poetry – just to make an effort to learn a few words in Spanish for basic communication. Employees really appreciate this,” says Garcia, who adds that many times whether an employee stays on or not does not relate to money. “They come here looking for more things than money. They want to learn and be challenged.”
Tony Aragon would agree. Moving from Chihuahua, Mexico, he has worked on dairies in Minnesota and South Dakota since the early 1980s.
“What people need to understand is we are two different cultures. Many Hispanic workers are very polite. Saying things like “please,” “thank you,” and “good morning” and “good afternoon” are very important to us. Employees often think employers who don’t greet them or use these simple words are rude,’” says Aragon, who is the herdsman at Global Dairy, Estelline, S.D.
Aragon managed dairies in Mexico before traveling to Minnesota to visit his sister. With no plans to stay longer than six months, he began working for a local dairy. Six years later, he decided if he wanted better pay, and to be treated better, he needed to move on.
Over the years, he’s worked for many dairies helping them maximize their herd’s milk production. He has also helped recruit many employees from Mexico. Like him, he says many immigrant workers like working for dairies because they grew up in rural communities and are familiar with the work.
He says workforce morale has a direct correlation to milk production.
“In the dairy business it’s all about the attitude of guy working with the cows. Happy people make happy cows and happy cows make a lot of milk,” says Aragon.