Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Land of Milk and Immigrants

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Land of Milk and Immigrants

Article excerpt

A new wave of arrivais makes its mark in America's dairy country.

IMMIGRANTS FOUNDED the U.S. In western Wisconsin, where I live, people came in the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries from Germany, Switzerland, and Norway, lured by the pull of free land to homestead and pushed out of their home countries by adverse economic conditions. Many of these immigrants settled close to each other for protection and comfort. They first began their dairy farms, then started building churches, schools, and businesses. The local newspaper was printed in German until World War I. We still have areas known as Norwegian Valley, or Tell (named for the Swiss).

The dairy industry's story, which began to be written by these first-wave immigrants, continues to be written by today's immigrants.

During the first half of the 20th century, a farm of 40 to 100 cows became the landmark of this area, because it was the size one family could operate. The hours were long, the work hard, but one could provide for a family comfortably.

Fast forward to the 1980s. Many factors made it harder for dairy farmers to make a comfortable living with this number of cows. The family farm was disappearing. If people wanted to stay in business, farms needed to grow. That meant hiring employees - but from where? Young people were leaving the area, migrating to the cities to be educated and to find jobs that matched their skills. Increasingly, dairy producers have had a harder time finding local people to do the honest, but not glamorous, work.

Enter immigrants once again, this time from rural Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Many found jobs on the dairy farms, living in houses provided by their employers. They're part of a larger trend; the foreign-born share of Wisconsin's population grew from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 4.4 percent in 2008.

Like earlier Swiss and German immigrants to this area, the more recent arrivals are lured by the pull factor of jobs and pushed out by adverse economics. I have worked as an interpreter and cultural consultant on many of these dairy farms for 10 years, and almost all the immigrants I have worked with tell me that there aren t jobs in their home villages, and few opportunities.

Ericka, for example, had resolved early in life to migrate. In elementary school, she had to borrow a pair of nice shoes to wear to a contest; her thrill at winning was killed when she realized she'd ruined her cousins shoes walking to the event seven miles from home. She promised herself that she would come to the U.S. so her children would always have shoes.

Roberto worked for years milking cows in Wisconsin, building up capital so that he could return to Mexico, become an entrepreneur, and help his rural community: "I now have a business producing tomatoes in greenhouses, and I employ several people here," he wrote me. "I have also helped to get our [local] road graveled, so we can get back and forth in cars."

BEING PAID WHAT local people in Wisconsin are paid was huge for these immigrants - 10 times what they may have made in Mexico, if they had been lucky enough to have steady work.

Much to the delight of dairy producers, these folks became a integral part of the dairy industry, which had been struggling to find workers. A Buffalo County dairy producer told me about his previous difficulties working for 90 hours a week because he'd been unable to find people to hire. "I would go to the Fleet Farm Store and ask people if they would want to come and work for me. I would offer to pay more, and they didn't want to. I hired a retired policeman. He worked for two weeks, and called me one day: ? can't do this work; it is too stressful.'" Today, 40 percent of the dairy industry's hired labor is from the immigrant population.

Many immigrants tell me that life here is good, mostly. But many are undocumented, and they say that they would like to not have to live in the shadows. Such a life means either not driving or driving without a license - worrying, every time they get in their car, whether this is the time they'll be pulled over. …

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