MIDWAY — Mike Kohler says he remembers the days on the family dairy farm in this valley when the harvest was ready and local kids would line up to help bring in the hay and do other chores.

Those days of abundant local labor, he said, have disappeared in the last decade, leaving the dairy industry along with sheep herding and goat herding in a lurch when it comes to a dependable labor pool.

"Back then, the locals were eager to do it," he said. "There were a large number of kids who wanted to work, help with the hay, whatever, and you just can't find it anymore. It's too laborious."

Perhaps the competition has grown stiffer with the city jobs available, Kohler guesses, or maybe it is that farm work can be downright dirty, the hours long and the physical demands great.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has introduced a bill called the DASH Act, or the Dairy and Sheep H2A, which aims to help fix that problem by extending the length of time temporary foreign workers can stay in the United States on a visa.

Instead of regulatory language that only allows a stay to be "seasonal," the revisions would allow permitted guest workers to continue their employment on a dairy farm or as a herder for three years.

In a Washington D.C., teleconference hosted by Lee on Tuesday, the junior Utah senator said the fix is a simple one for a large problem that threatens the agricultural industry around the country.

"With a seasonal visa, workers return home each year, which works fine with some truly sub-agricultural industries," Lee said. "It doesn't make as much sense for the dairy industry and the sheep herding industry, which is year round."

Kohler, who is head of the Dairy Producers of Utah, said seasonal time frames work well for fruit and other crops but are impractical for the demands of a dairy farm.

"It's many odd hours and certain types of jobs, many of them require extensive training. You keep somebody here for nine months, they really like it and are just starting to figure out how to do it, and then you send them home."

24 comments on this story

The Food and Agricultural Policy Institute at Texas A&M University has been urging revisions, saying that the program is not working as it was intended and fewer than 5 percent of U.S. farms use the H2A program.

Lee said what his bill would not do is establish a legal path to citizenship and a renewal would be required.

"It's relatively unremarkable. It does not create a new visa where one doesn't exist," Lee said. "You can only hear about an issue so many times as a senator when you start thinking about how to remedy the problem. I decided it was time to move forward."

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16