A case study of mechanization and lower demand for immigrant workers

Dairy farming is a microcosm of the country’s historical dependence on low wage immigrant workers. These farms are cutting hired workers in half by mechanization, in order to reduce dependence on uncertain labor supply and boost higher productivity per cow. This mechanization story has played out in other farming sectors. Here we look at the several hundred Vermont dairy farms. We see how reduction of undocumented workers is taking place, worksite by worksite, driven by several forces.


Farms in American employ about one million hired workers on top of family owner workers. According to one study, the share of native-born hired crop farmworkers fell from about 40% in 1989-91 to a low of about 18% in 1998-2000, while the share born in Mexico rose from 54% to 79%. Since then, Mexican share fell to about 68% with other Hispanic countries account for up to 6%. Most are estimated to be undocumented. (Go here.)

Dairy farming depends almost entirely on Hispanic workers. One study found that 75% of Hispanic dairy workers in New York State were from Mexico, 25% were from Guatemala and Honduras.

Nordic Farms goes robotic

Robots are transforming the dairy industry: higher productivity, fewer workers. Go here and here.

According to the Burlington, Vermont, Free Press, a dairy farm in Charlotte, Vermont invested in five robots at $200,000 each to milk 260 cows, three times a day. Here is a video of dairy robotics. Through the use of special ear tags, lasers, and mechanical arms that find and milk the utters, mile production has gone up by 10% and cows are systematically weighed and inspected for infection. At least two other farms bought robots.

Vermont dairy farms are being pressured by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to hire only authorized workers. In addition, the supply of native born workers in Vermont has declined from outmigration and the spread of prescribed opioids and heroin. Opioid misuse is concentrated in rural areas, due to easy supply, outmigration of upwardly mobile persons, kinship and social networks, and increasing deprivation (go here).


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