Cognitive Dissonance in America's Dairy Land: Wisconsin farmers admire and depend on their undocumented Mexican laborers--and still vote for Trump.

AuthorAlexander, Brian
PositionMilked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers

Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers

by Ruth Conniff New Press, 313 pp.

At "dinner" time--in the middle of the afternoon--the dairy farmer, his wife, a brother-in-law, and a couple of friends gathered around the big kitchen table. There was a ham, and a turkey, and gigantic bowls of potatoes and vegetables, and two pies on the kitchen counter.

Two of the men were missing one finger each. "Caught it in a grain screw," one explained. I was there to report a magazine story. The guests had come to work on the farm for a day, and the big meal was one of the perks.

The farmer needed the help. This was 1997. A wave of farm consolidation had been building across the country, and, as the farmer said to me, "We had to get big or get out." That became a mantra across farm country, and especially on dairy farms.

Free market economics demanded it. As old New Deal supply-demand price management gave way, and as every link in the supply chain all the way to the retail shelf consolidated--think Walmart and Kroger behemoths--the price of milk and dairy products dove lower, cutting margins for farmers. They had to scale up to force per-unit prices down. Herds of 100 cows became herds of 300, then 1,000, then 2,000. So even as farms disappeared--in 1987, there were 146,685 farms with dairy cows in the United States; by 2017, there were 54,599--the industry produced more milk than ever.

You could celebrate this as "efficiency," without considering the cost in the destruction of communities and the price paid by farmers, who now die by suicide at one of the highest rates of any occupation. Or you could read Milked, Ruth Conniff's illuminating, distressing, yet oddly optimistic exploration of America's Dairy Land.

Back in 1997, the farmer outside La Crosse, Wisconsin, had not hired any Mexican labor. He wasn't sure what he was going to do--but he knew he had to do something. He could start his 14-hour day at 4:30 a.m., work as farmer, vet, mechanic, biologist. His wife could be accountant and business manager. But they could not run the place alone.

Their son had just started high school. The farmer hoped the boy would take over one day. The boy, having worked on the farm, and seen his father's brutal schedule, didn't want to take over, though he hadn't told his father yet. He wanted to get as far away from a dairy farm as he could possibly go.

Conniff, a Wisconsin native and the editor in chief of the...

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