University Study of Idaho's Changing Dairy Industry Focuses on Community-level Impacts

Monday, October 26 2009

Written by Bill Loftus

TWIN FALLS, Idaho – A team of University of Idaho researchers that studied the community level impacts of Idaho's rapidly changing dairy industry say they found largely positive economic and social effects.

During the two-year study, the researchers conducted a telephone survey of the general public, interviewed community members and local officials and analyzed publicly available data to understand the dairy industry and its impacts. The study was commissioned by the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

The team examined child poverty rates, health care impacts and crime rates, and explored the community-level effect of immigration policies in its report. Researchers released the report Monday, Oct. 26, at a news conference in Twin Falls on the College of Southern Idaho campus.

The study, "Community Level Impacts of Idaho's Changing Dairy Industry," analyzes how the industry’s workers impact the towns and small cities in which they live. The analysis specifically focused on the work force employed by Idaho’s dairy farms, rather than employees who work in cheese and value added manufacturing.

Much of the dairy industry's dramatic growth in Idaho occurred during the last decade and has been concentrated in the south central region of the state. Paralleling the industry’s rise and geographic concentration, southern Idaho’s Hispanic population grew by 85 percent since 2000.

"We've heard a lot of discussion about the dairy industry's impact. We wanted the study to try to understand what the actual impacts are," said Bob Naerebout, the association's executive director. "We knew there would be positives and negatives."

Agricultural economist Priscilla Salant, who serves as the University of Idaho's outreach and engagement coordinator, and rural sociologist J.D. Wulfhorst, who directs the university's Social Science Research Unit, led the study.

"We focused on local impacts, on Main Street, hospitals, schools and other critical aspects of healthy communities," Salant said.

"We believe this is the most comprehensive study of how the industry and its workers impact communities," Wulfhorst added.

The industry's growing workforce meant Jerome and Gooding counties grew while three-quarters of farming-dependent counties nationally lost population since 2000.

Idaho's dairy industry posted an estimated $2.1 billion in milk sales in 2008 and recent federal statistics show it ranks third or fourth nationally in milk production. Some half, or nearly 250,000 milk cows, of Idaho's dairy herd are located in Gooding, Jerome and Twin Falls counties.

The research was funded by a $60,288 grant from the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

The Hispanic population's growth in the region reflects in part the need for men who are strong enough and willing to work the long, hard hours that the dairy industry demands, Salant said.

In general the industry has had positive impacts at the local level, especially in the town of Jerome where stores and restaurants have more customers, Salant said. Businesses have responded quickly to their new customers. But the public sector can’t adapt as quickly to newcomers. Changing how public services like education and law enforcement are delivered takes more time.

"The growing dairy sector has contributed to economic growth in south central Idaho, whether measured in job numbers, unemployment rates, per capita income or other commonly used economic indicators. Especially in Jerome County, employment and population numbers are increasing along with growth in the dairy industry. Nevertheless, some local residents face serious economic hardship," the authors wrote.

Those hardships include higher child poverty rates and greater numbers of children who qualify for reduced-price school lunches.

The researchers also addressed how the changes influenced crime in the communities. Although felony rates for Hispanics are higher in southern Idaho, the rate has declined in recent years while the Hispanic population has continued to increase.

"People we interviewed in the law enforcement and justice system indicated that dairies do not serve as a catalyst for increasing crime," the authors said.

On health care, the researchers found no evidence from county-level statistics or interviews that any group put a disproportionate strain on health care services or indigent care costs.

One of the challenges associated with the industry's work force is that many of its workers are foreign-born. Whether here legally or not, many Hispanics do not fully participate in the communities where they live because they fear the negative consequences, community members told the researchers.

The report's recommendations included:
• Recognition of the need for an immigration policy that provides stability and predictability for dairy workers and thus for the communities in which they live
• Industry support for a scientific study that could better identify dairy workers, where they live and their needs
• Industry advocacy for actions to build the economic prosperity of its workforce
• Facilitated public forums focused on immigration and community-level impacts; and the addition of a community-labor liaison position funded jointly by the university and the industry.

Co-authors of the report included Stephanie Kane, Social Science Research Unit project manager, and Christine Dearien, research associate. All are members of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

The report is available online


About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state's flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university's student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit