"Put the right program together, and you solve the whole immigration issue," Fred Wescott said.
Of course, that's easier said than done.
But a fix is needed.
"There's no immigration or visa program that dairy farmers can turn to for workers," said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of Minnesota Milk. "We can talk about stats. About 50% of the cows milked are milked by immigrants."
Spotting the fakes
Sjostrom said that because of the nature of dairy work — cows need to be milked twice daily — dairies that use immigrants need those workers year-round. But workers who can get permanent visas can go to other job fields that have a heavy need for labor, such as construction and manufacturing.
Consequently, there are likely plenty of people using illegal documentation to get jobs, he said.
"People use fake documentation all the time," Sjostrom said. "As the business owner, you are looking at real documents, but they are not theirs. But they might have a driver's license and Social Security number that matches."
Sjostrom said he could not guess how widespread the problem is, since numbers on something that "under the radar" can be problematic. But there are certainly workers being hired on false documentation, often unknown to the business owner.
Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said the complexity of the system for bringing in immigrant labor is a big part of the problem. The system is dealing with everything from temporary workers to permanent residents, from a path to citizenship to border security and document verification.
In the end, farmers are focused on just one thing.
"Our concern is having access to that labor when it's needed," Paap said. "As far as verifying, you have to take their word on it. We've got a hardworking workforce, but some of them may be unauthorized."
Here and gone
While finding permanent workers from migrant labor has one set of problems — document verification and competition from other industries make getting temporary help problematic.
"It's not a cheap program," said Wescott, who hires 30 or so temporary workers a year — almost all are from south of the border on H-2A visas. They do the field labor of pruning trees and picking apples for Wescott Orchard and the Mississippi Valley Fruit Company orchards.
Wescott said the problem with hiring American workers is the nature of the work. It is hard, outdoor work that does not often appeal to U.S. citizens. Second, his need for labor comes in short peaks separated by long valleys. So, he might need about 30 employees for four months of picking in late summer through the fall, but he will require only 15 or 20 workers in the spring for planting and pruning.
It's the perfect job for someone who sees the H-2A pay scale as an economic boon. That, he said, isn't typically an American worker.
Wescott said he'd "absolutely" like to see the system overhauled.
"The sad part of it is, there's an element of our government that's against foreign workers," Wescott said. "There's an idea they take jobs away from local people, and it's an absolute fallacy."
Consequently, the system for hiring those temporary workers on an H-2A visa is "dysfunctional and difficult," he said.
Paap said the process and problems with verification in both the temporary and permanent worker programs are labyrinths that can frustrate small business owners who are simply trying to put food on America's table.
"The whole immigration system is more than three decades old, and it needs to be upgraded," Paap said. "Eventually, we have to decide, are we going to import our labor or import our food?"