Puerto Rico: New Source for Dairy Workers?

Finding enough workers for dairy farms is one of the most intractable ag workforce development problems of our time. A group from South Dakota’s dairy industry is taking a new approach with a project to recruit workers from Puerto Rico. I’ve spent time in Puerto Rico, especially out in the rural parts of the island. I was there in the early 1990’s and had the opportunity to visit a 50 cow dairy farm that was remarkably similar to many that you’d find in the northeast U.S. today, except maybe that pineapple field across the road! Let’s get a few facts straight:

  • Puerto Rico is a territorial possession of the United States.
  • Puerto Rican citizens are U.S. citizens and have been for 100 years.
  • Puerto Ricans can move freely and work anywhere in the U.S. They cannot vote in nationwide elections and are not represented in Congress unless they become a resident of one of the 50 states.
  • Puerto Rico currently has an unemployment rate of 11.9%, compared to the overall U.S. rate of 4.7%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So Puerto Rico is a Spanish-speaking, culturally Hispanic, tropical island territory that belongs to the U.S. It’s citizens can move and work freely in the U.S., like all U.S. citizens , and it has a high number of unemployed people. I commend the South Dakota group for thinking originally and attempting to develop a new workforce supply for their dairy farms. The ability of Puerto Ricans to freely move about for work will make it very important for the South Dakota dairies to be attractive places to work. That means good HR practices: effective training, clear communications and feedback, respect and appreciation for employees, good housing, pay, and benefits. If things aren’t right at work for a Puerto Rican, he/she can simply move on immediately to another job anywhere in the country.

If this works out for South Dakota producers, what other workforce development opportunities might exist? Could dairy farmers find other places in the United States with relatively high unemployment where workers could be sourced?

What if farmers brought workers in for periods of time of intense work, followed by some time off. Let’s say 6 weeks on working 6 days week, followed by two weeks off, a rotation similar to how gas well drillers bring in employees from a distance. Certainly there would be many workers who couldn’t deal with such a schedule, but there might be many who could do it, especially with housing provided.

Who knows what might happen with immigration reform. In the meantime, I think it’s time to think creatively about workforce development. I welcome discussion on this topic.

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