How an American Crisis Brought Together US Dairy Farmers and Mexican Farmworkers | Civil Eats

How an American Crisis Brought Together US Dairy Farmers and Mexican Farmworkers

Ruth Conniff, author of the new book “Milked,” explores the overlap of consolidation in the dairy industry, anti-immigrant policies, and the challenges of documenting life among dairy workers.

Ruth Conniff and the cover of her book, Milked, about the dairy industry and dairy workers

As Ruth Conniff prepared to move her family to Mexico from Wisconsin after the 2016 election, she encountered an article that gave her pause. It detailed how increasingly brazen anti-immigrant rhetoric was driving fearful migrant dairy farmworkers in Wisconsin to return home to Mexico, posing an economic threat to a state where 80 percent of dairy farmworkers are Mexican and Latin American.

“We really don’t acknowledge the degree to which we’re economically dependent on these folks that are being demonized,” says Conniff, who is editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner and editor-at-large for The Progressive.

In her book Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers, Conniff uses human stories to trace the political, social, and economic intersections of twin rural crises in the U.S. and Mexico. Broken into 18 chapters of biographical vignettes, Milked captures the deep kinship between dairy farmers and farmworkers, drawing a stark contrast with the anti-immigrant sentiments farmworkers face at-large in American society.

Dairies employing immigrants produce 79 percent of the U.S. milk supply, according to a 2015 study commissioned by the dairy industry, and eliminating immigrant labor would lead to the closing of more than 7,000 dairy farms. Conniff traces the dairy industry’s dependence on undocumented migrant labor along the same timeline of a rural crisis driven by low milk prices and large-scale consolidation.

Mexican workers answered a labor demand on dairy farms as Midwestern family farmers faced pressure to grow their cow herds in order to compete with mega-dairies. Conniff notes that half of Wisconsin’s dairy farms disappeared in the last decade, but the number of cows—1.2 million—stayed the same.

Conniff also finds that the strain on Midwestern dairy farming communities mirrors the rural crisis across the border in Mexico, where hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), leading Mexican farmworkers to look north for work.

Civil Eats spoke with Conniff about these intertwined crises, her experience of documenting these stories, and the lessons for food systems.

In Milked, you reference two crises that are interlinked by the kinship between Midwestern dairy farmers and Mexican farmworkers. Could you elaborate on these two crises?

There’s a direct relationship in that the farmers who were quickly growing their operations in order to stay in business in the late ‘90s and early 2000s hired workers for the first time ever. Family members had done all the work on the farms until then for most of these guys. Once they began looking for workers, seasonal agricultural laborers from Mexico, who were working on local Christmas tree farms, heard about jobs on dairy farms and came over to do those jobs. They were drawn to the year-round work.

The fact that the farmers had to “get big or get out” and grow their farms is the reason that they started hiring these immigrant laborers. And the reason that those folks were here is partly because they cannot make a living in these little rural towns in Mexico. It’s very hard to find jobs in those towns, and subsistence farmers were being driven off their land.

Global economic forces are acting on both groups of people, and they found themselves thrown together.

How does Milked differ from existing coverage of these topics?

It’s really about people. It’s a deep dive into the biographies of these people so the reader can understand a little bit more about their experience—what it’s like to be smuggling yourself into the United States in the trunk of a car so that you can work and make money.

I think there’s also a certain amount of exoticism of Midwestern Trump voters by coastal media along with a lot of impatience about, “When are these people going to wake up?” Understanding the real crisis in the Midwest that has driven people to be very alienated from party politics, and to feel that the Democrats are not going to save them, is important. It was both interesting and surprising to hear the stories of farmers who lived through this seismic change in their lifetime—from little self-sustaining family farms with 30 to 50 cows, to having to grow to stay in business, the pain and regret that people feel about that transition in rural places, and how there is a reflection of that in the pain of people who were driven out of their homes in Mexico and walked across the border to find jobs.

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Between both the farmers and the Mexican workers, people had memories of living sustainable local lives in the rural places they shared, and that’s meaningful to them.

An interesting challenge to that rhetoric about Midwestern farmer politics was the discussion of NAFTA. What was the impact of NAFTA on farmer livelihoods and politics on both sides of the border?

NAFTA caused subsidized U.S. corn to be dumped in Mexico. Corn is deeply part of Mexican culture, and the biological diversity of corn, the fact that people were growing it at the subsistence level—a lot of that was wiped out by this huge dump of cheap corn from the United States. It feels particularly unfair because the U.S. government subsidized it, and that’s why the prices were so low.

Meanwhile, pushing monoculture and giant crops in the United States accelerated what was already the “get big or get out” trend in agriculture. As a result, there was a lot of push to export and overproduce, making prices very volatile. After years of low prices, a lot of people went out of business. Farmers felt that it did not help them and instead hurt them.

I think a lot of the talk about agriculture from both political parties is really driven by Giant Ag in this country. There’s a lack of perception that there are different interests. People who are trying to keep things going on a smaller scale do not share the interests of giant corporations that are on board with some of these global trade deals.

The book transitions from vignette to vignette, starting with farmers and farmworkers and then transitioning to people in surrounding communities, including a politician and activist. Why did you structure the book like this?

I really wanted to start with Stan Linder, driving his van from his dairy farm in Stockholm, Wisconsin, down to Veracruz, Mexico. I found that to be a really interesting experience to see these old farmers travel down to Mexico and drink tequila and party with their Mexican workers. I felt like it was a stereotype-breaking moment to show that these folks are friends. They have this long-standing relationship, and they feel a strong sense of kinship.

There was still so much hate being poured on immigrants, and people were attributing that attitude to Republican farmers. I found it very intriguing that there’s actually something else going on. I also found that trip to be touching, because there was a real sense of pride for the farmers in the homes and businesses that their workers had built with the money that they earned from milking cows up north. I wanted to lay out the fact that this relationship exists, and then go deeper into exploring people’s lives and how they came to the point that they’re at.

There are a lot of interesting themes, like the town Arcadia [Wisconsin]. I talked about the barber in Arcadia, who is a cousin of another Mexican farmworker in the book. H e chose to stay in the U.S. and become a local barber in this little town. A lot of the farmworkers that I talked to clearly want to go back to Mexico; they don’t intend to stay here. But that barber had a different take: He was staying. And the children of people who have come here are American kids and can’t imagine living in Mexico. In Arcadia, more than 70 percent of the population of the school is Spanish-speaking. If not for the immigrant students, the school would have closed because of low enrollment. There are clearly Mexican immigrants revitalizing this town. Something is really changing in an area that’s getting very old, that’s been very white, and where people are leaving in droves.

Part of the politics portion included speaking to Christine Neumann-Ortiz, who is the executive director of the immigrants’ rights group Voces de la Frontera. She said that demographics alone are not destiny; the people have to be politically organized. Can these business owners also become politically powerful? Can they take over the school board, which is still all white and accepted bus-route cuts that put families at risk of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids and made them more afraid to drive their kids to school? That transformation is just another example of how this hidden economic relationship is driving a lot more than political and xenophobic rhetoric about immigrants.

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The kinship between farm owners and farmworkers is palpable throughout the book. But there still remains a power dynamic between these two groups as employer and employees. How did you navigate that nuance?

I feel like it’s really important not to be naive. People are exploited, they have no power, they have no legal standing, and they really have nowhere to turn. I do have some of that in the book—people who have suffered wage theft and abuse. Until there’s a legal recognition of these workers who are so much of the backbone of agriculture in the United States, they are vulnerable to terrible exploitation.

Some of the people I interviewed described starting at about $8 an hour; they go up to $12 an hour, and then $15 for what are really hard jobs. But the reason that works for workers is that the money goes so much further in Mexico. They’re just trying to live as cheaply as they can, make that money, and send it home. It’s transformative for them back in Mexico, in terms of the homes and businesses they’re building back there. That’s part of the reason that these economic relationships are not simply people who can’t find something better and are getting crushed by people who are taking advantage of them. It’s working for both sides on some level.

What can the links between these two crises—the rural crisis and immigration—teach us about our food system?

It’s spread really thin. We have this industrialized model of agriculture that is doing a lot of harm to humans, the environment, and to animals. I hope that we could think about some better, more creative solutions to how we’re living.

I close the book with political economist Luis Rey’s perspective, because it hits home the idea that we should be thinking about models of life that are not just driven by global economics and treating people and food as a commodity. Instead, we should consider, “What’s a sustainable way to live?”

Lindsey Margaret Allen is the founder of Elemmay Productions, LLC and the Creative Producer and Host of POINT OF ORIGIN. Lindsey’s work is grounded in expanding awareness about supply chains as a means to help people make informed decisions about what they eat - in support of their own health as well as the health and well-being of our global communities and the environment. Read more >

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