Wisconsin dairy farmer perspectives on labor and social policy 

2023 Dairy Farmer Survey

Ana Fochesatto, Adena Rissman, and Yu Lu

Labor supply and working conditions are critical issues for Wisconsin’s evolving dairy industry. As the number of dairy farms has decreased, herd sizes and milk production have surged, increasing the demand for labor. Wisconsin farms now depend more on immigrant workers from Latin America. 

This policy brief shares perspectives from farm owners on several labor-related concerns such as paying overtime hours, healthcare, and immigration policies affecting workers. The findings reveal that farm owners view providing a good quality of life to workers as a critical part of being a “good farmer.” Farm owners surveyed exhibit diverse policy positions on enhancing work conditions, showing favor towards certain social safety net policies such as universal healthcare while holding differing views on policies affecting immigrant workers. Examining farm owners’ views on policies affecting farm owner and worker livelihoods is critical to crafting inclusive policies that ensure a thriving dairy sector. 

Our team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls surveyed 2,000 dairy farm owners from January through March 2023. The findings presented in this brief specifically pertain to the labor and social policy aspects of a broader survey encompassing labor issues, water quality, and soil health. The survey received responses from 661 dairy farm owners for a 33% response rate. For more information, see the Appendix for responses and methodology.

How important is the role of an employer in being a “good farmer”?

More than half (58%) of dairy farm owners expressed that ensuring a good quality of life for farmworkers is very to extremely important for being a good farmer. Taking a closer look, 39% considered ensuring a good quality of life for workers very important and 19% deemed it extremely important.

Additionally, dairy farm owners also placed high importance on mentoring farm employees, which 33% rated as very important and 14% rated as extremely important. Providing good jobs was viewed as important but to a slightly lesser extent, with 31% of dairy farm owners considering it very important and 10% considering it extremely important. In contrast, when we asked dairy farm owners about the importance of having the highest milk production, using the latest technology, and equipment to being a good farm owner, on average, they rated those aspects as only a little to somewhat important.

What policy options do farm owners support for better working conditions? 

For policies where farm owners would be paid to provide better working conditions on farms, a substantial portion of farm owners either somewhat support or strongly support these policies. About one-third of farm owners expressed ambivalence with neither a support/oppose stance. When asked about broader social safety net policies such as creating a basic income for farm owners or instituting universal healthcare, farm owners were generally in favor with more support than opposition. More than half of dairy farm owners surveyed were in support of universal healthcare coverage. 

On the other hand, policies requiring farm owners to pay overtime hours, sick days, and vacation faced stronger opposition. 

Where do dairy farm owners stand on immigration policies affecting farmworkers? 

When it comes to immigration issues, farm owners surveyed differed in their policy positions. Specifically, we observed significant differences between farm owners who hired foreign workers and those who did not. Out of the farm owners surveyed, approximately 40% employed at least one foreign full-time worker, while the remaining 60% did not.

Pathway to citizenship

Farm owners who employed at least one foreign-born employee were more likely to support a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers with 61% expressing support compared to 41% of farm owners without foreign-born employees supporting the measure. A substantial portion (42%) of farm owners without foreign-born employees neither supported nor opposed. 

Sponsoring visas for undocumented workers

Similarly, among dairy farm owners employing foreign-born employees, there was strong support for sponsoring visas for undocumented workers with 58% expressing some level of support. Among dairy farm owners without foreign employees, only 29% expressed support for sponsoring undocumented workers, 32% opposed, and the rest (39%) were undecided. 

Tougher enforcement of immigration laws

Dairy farm owners without foreign full-time workers tend to support tougher enforcement of immigration laws, with 46% in favor. Meanwhile, farm owners with foreign workers show a mix of stances, with 33% in support, 29% undecided, and 39% in opposition. 

Where do dairy farm owners stand on driver’s licenses for undocumented migrants?  

Among farm owners with foreign full-time employees, there is a higher level of support for granting driver’s licenses to undocumented people, with 51% expressing some level of support. On the other hand, among farm owners without foreign full-time employees, there is more opposition to the policy, with 43% expressing some level of opposition. While a substantial portion of farmers are neutral, the level of opposition is relatively higher for farm owners without foreign-born employees


This report is supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture work was supported by Grassland 2.0, a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Systems grant (#2019-68012-29852), National Science Foundation Innovations at the Nexus of Food Energy and Water Systems (EAR 1855996), and the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant (NA18, OAR 4170097).