JEROME, IDAHO — Over 30 years, the jade-green Snake River, generous bank loans and old-fashioned muscle have transformed southern Idaho’s Magic Valley from desert to dairy powerhouse.
In excess of 400,000 cows reside in the valley, more than twice the number of humans. Workers in rubber boots pull long shifts feeding livestock, clearing mountains of manure and extracting millions of pounds of milk all day, every day, all year, on ranches tucked into the rock and sagebrush-studded landscape.
Sleek silver tankers filled with milk barrel down Interstate 84 toward dairy processing plants, among them one owned by Chobani, which opened the world’s biggest yogurt factory five years ago just down the road in Twin Falls.
Since 2000, milk production has doubled in Idaho, providing the state with $10.4 billion in direct sales, according to University of Idaho economists.
Chobani’s gleaming $750 million, cream-colored plant is just one of the many big businesses linked to Idaho’s voluminous milk production, now around third- or fourth-largest among states.
In short, the Magic Valley’s dairy boom is a contemporary rural American success story — the kind that President Donald Trump railed as a candidate is too often missing across the country. Unemployment here was less than 3 percent this summer, about as good as it gets, and optimism should be high.
Yet on dairy farms, among both owners and workers, a sense of dread hangs in the dry southern Idaho air.
In a word: Immigrants.
Dairy farmers lean heavily Republican in this deeply red state of only 1.7 million people, where 88 percent of the voting-age population are non-Hispanic whites. But in the age of Donald Trump — who won Idaho handily — even the farmers who supported the new president fear the fate of their businesses is about to run headlong into a harsh political reality.
They’re frightened that Trump’s aggressive deportation policies will soon start to pick off or push away the mostly Hispanic immigrants who do the gritty work here that Americans aren’t interested in doing at dairies. Many of these workers are probably undocumented, farmers acknowledge, yet they’re the sturdy backbone of a surging industry. Here in the Magic Valley, the farmers’ perspective is starkly different from the president’s rhetorical claim that undocumented workers “compete directly against vulnerable American workers.”
And the farmers’ view is pitting them against a vocal contingent of neighbors who’ve responded both to Trump’s rhetoric and far-right media that’s targeted immigrants as a threat. Southern Idaho, in fact, became a flashpoint for xenophobia this past year when outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars seized on false reports about Muslim refugees — accusing them of gang rapes and the spread of fatal diseases like tuberculosis — and turned the remote area into an anti-immigrant cause celebre. But locally, it's starting to sink in that Trump’s vows to oust undocumented workers could actually kick the legs out from under the “Made in America” model the Magic Valley exemplifies.
Idaho dairy industry representatives estimate that between 85 to 90 percent of on-site dairy workers in the state are foreign-born. The U.S. Department of Labor and other estimates suggest that nearly half to 70 percent of all U.S. farm laborers are undocumented — certainly enough to shut down many of the milk pumps here if workers are ousted as a result of Trump’s policies.
That’s why farmers’ groups have for years pushed Congress, unsuccessfully, to make it possible for them to legally employ immigrants they say are desperately needed. Prospects don’t look any rosier now. In recent months, anti-immigrant rhetoric has only grown more vitriolic, and Trump supporters — including some here — are expecting the president to follow through on campaign promises and deport more people.
Those who understand the dairy business here fear that a political solution won’t materialize before it’s too late, if ever. And that means businesses could struggle due to labor shortages and plummeting production.
“The dairy industry is a big money maker. But without workers, without somebody that’s going to be there 12 hours a day, milking your cows, getting dirty, there’s no business,” said Shannon Pérez, a non-Hispanic Anglo, as people here say, who’s worked on dairy and calf ranches. She’s already watched helplessly as her own family was split by deportation.