Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers
July 14, 2022
Milked focuses on how farmers and immigrants have been pitted against one another, but in many ways, it is a broader metaphor for how all Americans are pitted against each other. Yet it is not about the doom and gloom of it all—it is about hope.
Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers by Ruth Conniff, The New Press
My colleague Dylan recently reviewed the book How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion by David McRaney. In his review, he writes:
For all I’ve read (and written) about the importance of engaging in conversations with people who we might disagree with […] I've lately become very skeptical about the efficacy of doing so. I have told multiple people recently I’m not so sure that I even care what is in people’s heads and hearts anymore, or in changing it, that I just want people to find some reason—any reason—to vote for what it seems to me is clearly in their own interests—for things like universal health care, a stronger social safety net, civil rights, women’s rights, voting rights. David McRaney’s new book, How Minds Change, has convinced me I am mistaken—that engaging in those conversations is vital.
I’ve been—and really, still am—in the same headspace. How Minds Change calls for conversation, rather than debate, as the antidote to division and misunderstanding. McRaney writes:
Debates have winners and losers, and no one wants to be a loser. But if both sides feel safe to explore their reasoning, to think about their own thinking, to explore their motivations, we can avoid the dead-end goal of winning the argument.
Logically, the concept is sound, and not only do I agree with it, I’ve employed it before: in the lead-up to the 2020 election, my job was to train community organizers to engage in relational organizing, a method that relies on using direct conversation to spur friends and family to take action rather than, say, knocking on strangers’ doors.
However, McRaney emphasizes the need for safety in these dialogues. There must be some level of trust to make such a conversation work. I’ve still felt too raw to want to engage meaningfully with those across the political aisle, and with the extreme polarization gripping the nation, I certainly haven’t felt safe stepping into those conversations directly. I think of the quote from writer Robert Jones, Jr., known for the Twitter account @SonofBaldwin: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Unfortunately, political discourse over the past few years feels like it is less about finding the best way to govern, and more about who is worthy of the American Dream.
For this reason, I’m grateful to have read the recently published book Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers by Wisconsin Examiner Editor-in-chief Ruth Conniff. In it, Conniff highlights the stories of Wisconsin dairy farmers and their Mexican farm workers, two seemingly disparate groups often pitted against one another who, in fact, have more in common than we think. She also offers a view into the policies that have created the situation we’re in. And, most importantly, the book is a window into the motivations of people we ourselves may have misjudged or been misjudged by. Though by no means a replacement for interpersonal dialogue and conversation, the book offers a safe space from which readers from either side of the political spectrum can begin to better understand one another.
Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by spouting brazenly racist anti-Mexican vitriol—the quote is easy to find on the internet, so I won’t repeat it here. He has spent the time before, during, and after his presidency stoking hatred against countless historically marginalized communities. It’s not a coincidence that violence against such communities has spiked in recent years, and that hateful views once shared covertly have now become the explicit platforms of elected officials nationwide.
During the 2016 presidential election, Wisconsin, a key swing state, tipped in Trump’s favor with a slim margin of 0.77% of votes, a clash between the concentration of urban Democratic voters against the rural Republican voters spread through the mass of the state. Though the state then tipped in the other direction in 2020, with Joe Biden winning with a 0.63% margin, Trump received a greater number of votes in his favor the second time around, up from 1.4 million in 2016 to 1.6 million in 2020. Despite the loss, the sprawling land outside of Milwaukee is dotted with Trump 2024 signs.
The curiosity surrounding this is the fact that, while rural voters have repeatedly backed an openly anti-Mexican candidate, dairy farming—once Wisconsin’s primary economic engine—is sustained overwhelmingly by the labor of Mexican immigrants. This is not a secret or a rarity: multiple sources estimate that immigrants make up at least 40% the Wisconsin dairy workforce, though the true number is likely much higher.
Throughout the book, Conniff looks to unpack this dissonance by getting to know some of the players directly. What drives a white farmer to vote for Trump while he relies on—and even befriends—his Mexican farmworkers? What spurs Mexican families to undertake perilous journeys across the border to a country that is growing increasingly hostile? Understanding the ties that bind white rural farmers with Mexican farmworkers is the mission driving the book, as Conniff writes:
[This] book is a collection of interlocking life stories of people from opposite sides of the border who have been thrown together by global economic forces beyond their control. Both groups of people are under enormous pressure. And both are widely misunderstood.
Conniff names the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect on January 1, 1994, as the key policy that squeezed farming families on both sides of the border, driving them towards a common goal of survival. Conniff writes:
Mexico lost more than 900,000 farming jobs in the first decade after NAFTA. When cheap U.S. corn flooded the market under the trade deal, prices plummeted and Mexican farms went belly-up. Thousands of men migrated to the United States in search of jobs. Rural parts of Mexico that used to be dotted with subsistence farms have emptied out, as young people stream north to find a way to earn a living.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the farming landscape was also shifting. Industrialized farms with massive herds of cows that could produce a much higher milk supply were increasingly favored over the smaller heritage farms that Wisconsin was once known for. The need for work and the need for workers coalesced, as Conniff writes:
Under pressure to grow their operations in order to compete with the growth of giant farms, family farmers in Wisconsin and Minnesota began hiring Mexican workers about twenty years ago, as they moved from family operations with very few employees to bigger dairies that needed paid labor to handle all the cows. There were not many American workers willing to do the dirty, exhausting jobs on the farm. But Mexican workers in the area were glad to move over from seasonal agricultural jobs to full-time, year-round work on the dairies. They have now become essential.
Throughout the book, it’s clear that farmers and farmworkers are up against crushing forces. And while these two groups were initially brought together as a means of survival, their bonds are strengthened as they realize how similar their values and ways of life truly are. Conniff writes:
Dairy farmers who have visited rural Mexico describe seeing something there that they recognized from their own lives—an agrarian, communal way of life that has become endangered by rural depopulation and the decline of family farms and small towns […] In some ways, Midwestern farmers have found that they have more in common with farmworkers from rural Mexico than they do with the people who live in nearby cities in their own country.
Though policy created many of today’s unsustainable conditions, farmers continue to seek respite in the promises made by their policymakers. “When Donald Trump appealed to ‘the forgotten men and women of America,’” Conniff writes, “he was speaking to a sense of loss among rural voters who felt the rest of the country has turned its back on them, viewing them with contempt.” Again, I think back to this question: what drives white farmers to vote for an anti-Mexican candidate when they are so closely attached to their Mexican workers? After reading Milked, it’s much clearer that the answer is that there was no better choice.
Several of the farmers profiled in the book note that a candidate like Trump wasn’t ideal, but ultimately, he stood out for his campaign trail commitments to aid farmers economically—a benefit that, ironically, would trickle down to the very immigrants Trump has lambasted. It’s a cruel twist to realize that many farmers voted for a racist candidate because that was, in fact, the best way to advocate for their workers. This reveals something very broken about our current political system—as Conniff notes, “neither political party has offered serious, systemic solutions to the complicated problems that afflict rural areas.”
Conniff also includes this perspective from an undocumented worker:
Blandina is aware of hostility to undocumented immigrants like herself in the surrounding community. Not all the people who put up the huge Trump signs are racists, she says. “They aren’t just thinking about immigrants and deporting them,” she says. “A lot of people agree with his other ideas and not what he says about immigrants.” And then, she adds, “there are also a lot of people like that—racists.”
Moments like these are a stark reminder of how politics really play out in the day-to-day life of the average American. The loudest voices in the public arena are often the most extreme. This isn’t to downplay how dangerous those voices can be—and they very much are. But most of the country—whether rural or urban, conservative or liberal, et cetera—is simply trying to live. We’re doing the best with what we can. This is such an obvious truth, and yet, it may just be revolutionary.
I went into this book recognizing that I still carry years’ worth of deep animosity—and plenty of fear—towards the people on the “other side” of the political spectrum. I was hopeful that a book like Milked could help me work through these feelings. Without a doubt, this book jumpstarted that process for me. It helped me understand how much I simply didn’t know, and how I’ve spent so much time seeing the world through a black-and-white, us-versus-them perspective—a view that I’ve scorned in others, but didn’t realize I've also engaged in. I mourn for the years that we as Wisconsinites have lost to such political divisions. The current political system seeks to divide us, to make us believe that we have nothing in common with our neighbors and that the individual is superior to the community.
Milked focuses on how farmers and immigrants have been pitted against one another, but in many ways, it is a broader metaphor for how all Americans are pitted against each other. Yet it is not about the doom and gloom of it all—it is about hope. As Conniff writes,
A shared set of agrarian values has helped build the relationship between dairy farmers in Wisconsin and Minnesota and undocumented Mexican workers. That relationship is a hopeful sign that the toxic narrative of division and resentment that has dominated American politics in recent years doesn’t tell the whole story. As [educator] Shaun Duvall says, "People are more than political labels.” We have more in common than we realize. That is what this book is about.
If this book can get into enough hands and begin to open discourse across Wisconsin, a future may yet exist in which we can finally sit down at the same tables and fully understand each other once again.