Told President Trump dairy, poultry industries need foreign help
By Mike Strathdee
As Printed in The Marketplace – March/April 2018
Many entrepreneurs wish they could have a face-to-face chat with a government leader to explain how that government’s policy is negatively affecting their business.
Pennsylvania farmer Luke Brubaker had that close-up conversation with US president Donald Trump last spring, as one of 14 representatives of the ag industry invited to the White House for a farmers’ roundtable.
Brubaker told Trump that migrant labor, what he calls “essential workers,” are crucial to the success of his state’s agriculture industry, and asked how farmers could keep these workers.
He told the president that when immigration officers took away 13 documented workers, chicken catchers from a local farm, all but one of the replacements hired from a temp agency quit after a few hours.
Whether it be picking produce, milking cows or catching chickens, most farms can’t get by without imported labor, mostly Mexican in the case of Brubaker Farms. “It seems like a lot of us do not want to do that hard work,” Brubaker said.
Brubaker Farms, which is now mostly owned by Luke’s sons, Mike and Tony, milks 1,000 cows a day on two farms in Mount Joy, and raises 300,000 broiler chickens a year for Tyson Foods, the world’s second- largest processor and marketer of chicken. They also crop 1,800 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and rye.
To put the Brubaker operation into context, an average Pennsylvania dairy herd is only about 80 cows. Brubaker allows that there are only 20 dairies the size of Brubaker farms in the state, and the family operation is in the top five per cent of farms by size.
Automation to reduce labor costs isn’t cost effective for most of the 5,500 dairy farmers in Pennsylvania. Brubaker estimates that only a dozen use robotic milking machines. “Financially, we could not afford to change our operation from where we are today to robots.”
The world price for milk is too low to make those changes. Demand for milk has been dropping, in part because people aren’t eating as much cereal.
Brubaker started farming in the 1960s, buying 18 cows from his father. In the 1970s, he began buying the family farm.
“We’ve had many blessings and opportunities that allowed us to develop our farming operation,” said Brubaker, who is active in Mount Joy Mennonite Church.
Brubaker Farms has won numerous awards for innovation, environmental stewardship and energy conservation, including the 2011 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year.
Brubaker has made several trips to Russia representing the dairy industry and visited Ukraine and Belarus in that capacity as well. He has chaired the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Milk Marketing board since 2012, and active on the board for several decades. A Republican supporter, he has been nominated to the milk board by both Republican and Democratic governors.
He became politically active through his work with the milk marketing board. He describes himself as being “very supporting of trying to help guide right decisions in the political world.”
Being chosen to sit across a table from President Trump was something that one of the meeting organizers likened to the chance of being struck by lightning. Brubaker was golfing when he received a phone call from a Brubaker friend and former neighbor who was a past North Carolina leader in the House of Representatives. The friend asked him to call Washington. When he did so, a presidential advisor asked if he could come to the capital for a roundtable five days later.
The group that met included vice president Mike Pence, agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue, a Colorado rancher, a lumber person, a representative of pork processor Smithfield Foods, an Ohio landscaper, a New York produce grower, the Iowa secretary of agriculture and a former California secretary of agriculture.
Vice president Mike Pence was scheduled to visit the farm a week before the November 2016 election. Security measures and other planning were all in place when the event was cancelled on a day’s notice, as the Trump campaign decided it needed Pence in another community.
Brubaker Farms’ business card mentions green energy. The operation has a methane digester, making electricity for the farm and selling enough power to the grid for 150 to 200 homes. In addition to digesting cow manure, they use food waste from a local college and an egg hatchery.
Efforts to draft legislation that would ensure a steady supply of farm labor have not yet come to the floor of the U.S. Congress. “They are trying to get it right, which is a very complicated situation to please everybody.”
While Trump is saying that he wants American workers to have the jobs, “the agriculture community is pleading: we need these workers, or we are going to be buying our food from another nation,” Brubaker said.
Most Pennsylvania farms pay “way above minimum prices,” as well as providing health care and housing. “We feel they should be treated just like anybody else. We believe all employees on our operation be paid like anybody else.”
“If we can’t find a Mexican, it’s very, very hard to find a good essential worker now from another country.”
It is getting harder to find essential workers for agriculture, because “they are getting scared of being picked up for no reason at all.”
Agriculture is Pennsylvania’s biggest industry. The state has lost the lowest percentage of dairy farms in the U.S. since 2010, ranking in the top six of national production.
But without foreign help, Brubaker isn’t so optimistic. “If we lose a lot of dairy farms, we lose infrastructure.”
The issue is bigger than the dairy industry, he said. “The chicken and the hog business in Pennsylvania would have a hard time surviving without essential workers.” ◆