Several Humboldt County dairy farmers say they are facing a widespread shortage of employees due to restrictive immigration control as well as being outcompeted by the cannabis cultivation industry.
As result, some dairy farms may have to sell some of their cows or even close down their farms as their daily workload mounts, according to Western United Dairymen trade association’s Melissa Lema. Others say they will just have to grit their teeth and try to make up for the extra work as best they can.
“I’ve had a dairy producer tell me that it was the worst three months he has had than he has had in 45 years in the business,” said Lema, who is the trade association’s North Coast representative and represents 63 dairy farms in Humboldt County.
“We‘ve been hearing more in the last three to four months on this labor shortage than I have ever in my time working with producers. It’s really been a crazy time for producers.”
Similar to other agricultural industries in California, many of Humboldt County’s dairy farms have historically relied on migrant labor workers from Mexico as well and Central and South America.
When third-generation dairyman Dave Renner, 63, of Ferndale started working his own farm nearly 36 years ago, he said he would have one to two workers stopping each week looking for a job. Over the last five years, he and his wife Mary Anne have seen the number of prospective workers drop significantly.
“Now if we get three or four a year we’re lucky. It’s really bad,” Renner said. “… In my whole 35 years, probably the biggest challenge and one of the toughest issues we’ve had is finding employees.”
Renner is not alone.
Ferndale dairyman John Vevoda, 64, and his son Robert, 38, have had to operate without a third of their normal staffing at times. As a result, they’re having to pick up the extra work themselves while putting off their managerial duties.
“We’re not in the office doing some projections of what things will look like next year, setting goals for the dairy itself, amending our inventories,” Robert Vevoda said. “We’re out in the field more, overseeing that side of it. It makes it hard when the guys come in. Sometimes we’re not gonna dry cows because we’re short a guy and we really need to get the cows fed. We just need to focus on the day to day.”
“Fortunately, we still have our core guys, but that gets competitive too to keep your core guys,” Robert Vevoda said. “We’re all in the same boat and I think that’s what’s going on.
“I was talking with one of my neighbors and they hired another guy from another farm. Hearing that story…” he said, before trailing off.
Renner said that his smaller operation struggled to get by after losing one of their three employees. Even with the reduced staff, Renner said that he still has to milk his cows twice a day every day as he’s been doing for nearly four decades.
For John Vevoda, the solution to this issue is to allow more migrant workers to obtain work visas. However, Vevoda said some of their former employees are no longer attempting to obtain one due to intimidation and fear from drug cartels near border towns.
“They don’t even want to take a chance anymore,” John Vevoda said.
Humboldt County Farm Bureau Executive Director Katherine Ziemer said that they are attempting to find capable employees with the skills necessary to operate dairy equipment and handle livestock, but said that the “alternative cannabis industry” has been drawing many of those workers away.
“Because they pay more,” Ziemer said. “There are just a real shortage of people that will work on a dairy.”
Lema said dairy farmers have recently met with county officials to discuss possible strategies for finding local employees.
“I think it sounds like there is a lot of folks in the county that need a job,” she said. “Although it’s hard work, it is very rewarding and pays fairly well. Producers are willing to train new employees. … We’re just trying to work with different county agencies to capture that workforce that’s out there looking for a job.”
Still, Robert Vevoda said it’s hard to compete with a marijuana industry that can pay its workers in untaxed cash wages.
“Where else can you make $200 a day or more?” he asked.
While the county and state have taken steps to regulate the commercial medical marijuana industry, Robert Vevoda said he does not know whether that will have an effect on the dairy industry’s staffing shortfall.
After losing one of his three employees earlier this year, Renner said he was fortunate enough to hire a replacement.
But even the loss of one employee put a strain on his summer operations; they still have to harvest peat; they still had to pump enough water; they still need to have their irrigation systems in place and operational; and they still had to milk their cows twice a day, every day, as they have for the last 35 years.
“It has to get done. Even if you work all night, it has to get done,” Renner said. “That’s the way the industry is. It just has always has been that way. When you lose a guy on a Sunday afternoon and that happens when the other guys are having their days off, boom, you’re left without any help so your wife is out here working and you’re out here working.”
This article was first published on Times-Standard.com.