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Milk of the Gods

Idaho Refugees find new lives in an unlikely placeā€”an Oregon dairy

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Every eight minutes, 80 cows riding on metal carousels pass through this commercial milking parlor at Threemile Canyon Farms in Oregon. Ram Luitel has had a lot to learn about this 24/7 operation, including a new way of looking at cows, which to him, are holy.

Luitel is one of more than 30 Boiseans who found jobs at the dairy this year, many of them refugees from Bhutan. He helps supervise the workers as they clean udders and attach milking machines. Luitel works 50 to 60 hours a week and doesn't get paid overtime. But he says he doesn't mind.

"I am Hindu, so to Hindu, cow is a god. So we say that we are serving god," he said.

Luitel is originally from Bhutan, but he spent most of his life in a refugee camp in Nepal. About a year ago, his family resettled in Boise.

Luitel speaks nearly perfect English, and he was a college student in Nepal before coming to the United States. The 21-year-old found work right away at Micron Technology as a computer operator. The rest of his family wasn't so lucky, and their federal assistance nearly dried up. Then they found out that Threemile Canyon Farms, some five hours away in Boardman, Ore., was hiring. Luitel quit his job at Micron and seven months ago, went to work with his dad and uncle at the dairy.

Luitel walks past rotating cows and stops to check to make sure the milk being pumped is good. "I need to first test the teat of the cow and figure out which teat has bad milk, and if this is bad milk, I need to tie a ribbon on the leg," he explained while pulling a metal suction cup off the cow's teat.

The milk is good.

"This is my first experience in my life working at a farm because I have never touched a cow by my own hand before," he said.

Cows are revered as a symbol of life in Hinduism and are protected. Rural Indian families usually have a dairy cow that is treated like a family member. Luitel smiled as he explained how celebrated cows are in Hinduism. Here at the farm, he considers himself to be serving god.

It turns out the farm has had a hard time filling jobs, even in a recession. Big farms like Threemile Canyon, which has 16,000 Holstein and Jersey milk cows and 25,000 replacement calves and heifers, rely heavily on workers from Mexico. It's been harder to tap into that applicant pool, explained Walt Guterbock, the farm's livestock manager. About two years ago, the farm started checking Social Security numbers of new employees. "The problem we had was we'd interview people and say out of 10, we'd like five, and only one or two would have their [Social Security] numbers check out," he said.

Guterbock went looking elsewhere for workers. He heard about unemployed refugees in Idaho and got in touch with the International Rescue Committee. The IRC and other refugee agencies in Boise have struggled to find work for refugees since the economy turned sour.

The recession has made it tough to find entry-level work, the types of jobs that new arrivals often land. But that kind of work has been in short supply and the competition fierce. Threemile Canyon Farms offered an unusual solution.

"Some of these people would end up in homeless shelters if they don't have a job," said Guterbock, who is himself a child of refugees from Germany. "So I think we've saved some of them from that fate."

Guterbock said refugees make up a sixth of the farm's workforce. The majority of workers are Hispanic. Guterbock expected tension and problems to arise between Hispanic employees and refugees. The opposite, he said, has happened.

"The employees who are already here have been extremely kind in bringing people furniture and supplies, making them feel welcome and giving them rides to work," he said.

He credits the farm's diversity training for what he calls a "smooth transition." Earlier in the year, Threemile Canyon Farms hired an outside trainer to hold 10 workshops on diversity. He said most of their employees came to the sessions to learn about different cultural practices and beliefs.

"It was simple things," he said, "like what people eat or what they consider polite or impolite that people have to adjust to."

Guterbock is among those who want long-term immigration reform, but he said hiring refugees has helped fill a labor gap.

"That is not the solution to the agricultural labor issue facing the U.S. In other words, we need to address the undocumented people who are already here working," he said.

Threemile Canyon Farms is Oregon's largest commercial farm, although you wouldn't know it exists. The sprawling 93,000-acre operation is tucked off I-84, hidden among rolling sagebrush-covered hills.

The farm's payroll comes to $10 million every year, with 300 full-time workers and 400 seasonal jobs. The starting wage at the farm is $9.45 an hour. Workers and their families get full benefits after six months, more than these refugees could have hoped for back in Boise. Guterbock admits "nobody is going to get rich milking cows. Let's face it. But it's a good start."

Refugees like Luitel face long drives to see their families back in Boise. One car-load of refugees this year had a head-on collision, killing one. Still, Luitel sees working at the dairy as a way to start over and get his financial feet firmly planted. For now, he's learning to navigate the dairy world and to integrate into a new community. Lately he's been learning Spanish.

Refugee resettlement agencies in Boise are scaling back the number of new arrivals next year and trying to find new jobs in health care, such as providing in-home care. There's also an effort under way to create a health-care training program for refugees through St. Alphonsus hospital and the newly opened College of Western Idaho.

Luitel wants to take advantage of new opportunities. He said working at the dairy is only temporary, something Guterbock understands. Luitel wants to become a U.S. citizen and one day work in a medical field.

He said with the experience he's getting working with dairy cows, he might even become a veterinarian.