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FARMERS OR CRIMINALS?

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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The routine seldom varies. One worker walks a cow into a stall in the barn and another one sanitizes its udder before attaching four suction tubes to begin the milking process.


If the cow cooperates, this setup can take as little as 25 seconds. The workers then move to the next cow and the process is repeated.


And repeated. And repeated. And repeated.


By the end of a 60- to 72-hour workweek, the pair of workers will have performed about 10,000 milkings.


Dairy farm owners say the speed and efficiency of the north country's estimated 300 Hispanic milkers allow them to stay in business despite rising costs of fuel, feed and insurance, mandatory regulations by government and an unstable milk pricing system.


And, farmers say, Hispanics do a job the local population refuses to do, despite the region's 10 percent unemployment rate.


"The bottom line is that our society does not have to work," said Nancy M. Robbins, who with her husband, Ronald C., owns North Harbor Farm in Sackets Harbor. "People can get money for food, rent, even their heat and electric when they have no job. Where's the incentive to work?"


But the March arrest of a Smithville farmer for allegedly employing illegal aliens is crashing into the delicate juggling act of debt and revenue north county dairy farmers live with. When federal agents removed eight workers from a Butterville Properties farm to deport them to Mexico and other Central American countries, area farmers wondered: "Is my farm next?"


"If farmers lose their work force, they lose the farm," said Frank A. Gasperini Jr., vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, which works with labor-intensive agriculture operations, including dairy farms. "We don't have legal access to a work force to get the work we need done."


Farmers see themselves as providers to the nation and stewards of the land, but today few will talk publicly about their business for fear the feds will target their farm next.


No one wants to be the next farmer being led away in handcuffs.


"We're not criminals," Mrs. Robbins said.


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The hiring of Hispanic workers by New York dairy farmers began in earnest in 2000, according to a study by Cornell University, Ithaca, and today the New York Farm Bureau estimates that state farms employ as many as 10,000 immigrant workers.


"The relationship between dairy farmers and Hispanic immigrants has proven to be something that is extremely valuable to both groups," said Thomas R. Maloney, a Cornell professor who co-authored the study. "Hispanic immigrants are doing the most physically demanding jobs on the farm, which are the hardest to fill."


But the majority of those workers, researchers say, are not in the United States legally, and the March 20 death of Porfirio Lopez, 46, Guatemala, in an apparent fall from a fence at 11279 County Route 75, town of Henderson, a Butterville Properties farm, put a spotlight on the issue.


Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents investigated Mr. Lopez's death, removed immigrant employees and then arrested John Barney, co-owner of the farm, alleging he knowingly hired illegal immigrants to milk cows.


Mr. Barney was taken to Syracuse, where he was arraigned and released without bail. Federal prosecutors and Mr. Barney's defense attorney have agreed to forestall grand jury action to further discuss a possible disposition.


The raid on Mr. Barney's farm brought an outpouring of support from neighboring farmers, who sent help to ensure cows continued to be milked three times a day. That cycle of relentless milking is why farm owners look for milkers who are reliable and committed to a job that ensures a steady paycheck.


"We can't entrust just anyone with our animals, and we can't say, 'Oh, well, we don't feel like producing today.' We're not a furniture factory," said Mr. Robbins of North Harbor Farm. "The guys that come to Watertown to milk cows come to make money, good money, in a short amount of time."


He said the commitment to make money — and send it home to their families — ensures that Hispanic workers don't cause trouble.


"Every day on the news and in the paper, there's a story about a stabbing or a shooting or someone beating up a baby with a golf club," he said. "Those are the people that are dangerous to society. Not some Hispanic workers trying to better their lives and the lives of their families."


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Eric Behling, owner of Behling Orchards in the Oswego County town of Mexico, is building a bunkhouse for the Jamaican immigrant workers who soon will be arriving on his farm.


He talks openly about migrant labor because his crop is apples, and federal law allows him to hire seasonal workers from other countries.


The temporary-worker program, known as H2A, allows agriculture workers to come to the United States for less than a year and to be employed for production and harvesting.


Mr. Behling said the H2A program was an expensive and long process to complete, but it gives him a legal way to employ foreign workers, a solution not available to dairy farms.


"At certain times of the year, we need more help than is available," he said. "There are lots of jobs that get employees through a guest worker program, but in the dairy industry, they need year-round employees."


Mr. Gasperini of the National Council of Agricultural Employers said the U.S. Department of Labor puts its emphasis on protecting U.S. jobs.


"They have the attitude that, 'We don't need foreign workers, we have American workers,'" he said. "For the farmers, though, it's difficult to find domestic workers, so they are literally forced to hire the foreign workers."


Mrs. Robbins said that if dairy farmers were allowed to qualify for the program, she would use it.


"Farmers aren't trying to avoid paying the money or filling out the paperwork for this program," she said. "We need longevity. This program deals with seasonal help, and dairy farms need people year-round."


According to Cornell's Mr. Maloney, experienced milkers received an average wage of $9.71 an hour. Inexperienced milkers earned $8.58 an hour.


Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agriculture coordinator, said wages can be as high as $12 to $14 an hour.


Farmers said immigrant workers also might be given a furnished place to live, cable or satellite television, and even cellphones to call their families.


Farmers work in fear now of losing the trusted, reliable help they have come to depend on, which would force them out of business.


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If you skim the classified advertising section of the Watertown Daily Times, you will find it speckled with listings for "relief milker" or other farm jobs.


The ads hope to attract legal and reliable farm employees. But they also are proof that farmers have trouble finding area residents to milk cows.


And that means farmers must continue to depend on immigrant laborers who provide them with an employment document known as an I-9 form. Yet farmers by law are not permitted to ask questions about a potential employee's work legality. If they do, they face prosecution. If they don't, and then hire illegal aliens, they face prosecution.


"Farmers are between a rock and a hard place," said Christopher Thomas, Rochester, an attorney with Nixon Peabody, Rochester, which represents the interest of many famers.

In an email to the Times, he wrote: "The law requires them to obtain documents from all of their workers, which they willingly do, but now it appears they are being held to the level of skill of an FBI agent to detect forgeries. It doesn't seem fair. Farmers are regular people like you and me and should not be punished for government's failure to create a workable guest worker program."


One program that legislators and law enforcement agencies are offering is Internet-based E-Verify. The voluntary program developed by the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will help employers determine the eligibility of employees to work in the United States.


Mr. Matteson said there are concerns about the accuracy of the E-Verify program.


"I think you can probably compare that to the airlines, their no-fly list," he said. "How many people are on the no-fly list that are little old ladies or little children? So if that's not accurate, why should we expect this one to be?"


The fear behind the E-Verify process is twofold. Some farmers are concerned that inaccuracies in the program will unfairly disqualify workers or that it will discover so many forged documents that workers won't make it through the screening.


"If e-verification becomes mandatory, our agriculture work force is going to disappear. Seventy percent of our agriculture labor force is gone. Overnight," Mr. Gasperini said.


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If just part of the dairy industry's labor force disappears, so does the ability to meet the demand for raw milk. If farmers can't meet the demand, they can't capitalize on potential growth.


Mr. Matteson noted that St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties rank three and four in total milk production in New York, and with Lewis County form one of the largest milk-producing regions in the United States.


Jefferson County is home to two of the largest milk processing plants in the state — Great Lakes Cheese, Adams, and Crowley Foods, LaFargeville. Together, the two plants use more than 1 billion pounds of milk each year.


"The dairy industry is on the verge of monumental things happening," Mr. Robbins said. "There is a huge opportunity for us right here, to have these processing plants in this area. It has revitalized a whole region. Now, the challenge for the farmers is to continue to produce the milk for these plants."


Chobani Greek Yogurt, Norwich, which is about 21/2 half hours from Watertown, also uses milk from the north country. Mr. Matteson said he has heard that Chobani is looking to expand.


"You know where they won't come? They won't come to New York if they can't get milk, that's for sure," he said.


Alpina Foods LLC has announced plans for a $15 million manufacturing plant in Batavia, and three other Crowley Foods plants in Vernon, Oneida and Arkport also need milk.


"The need is growing by leaps and bounds," Mr. Matteson said. "The distributors need more milk and the milk supply is a real limitation. If we could remove just this one barrier, it would make things a little easier for our farmers. Someday that day is going to come and we will have missed the opportunity to grow jobs in New York state."

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