No one is more acutely affected by the Congressional torpedoing of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act than dairy farmers and their workers. Milking cows before dawn is no longer an appealing job opportunity for Americans—hence a labor shortage without precedent, adding to the avalanche of problems that beset family farms everywhere in America.
Ruth Conniff, author of Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers, knows a lot about this situation and the ways farmers have adapted by hiring, promoting, and befriending undocumented Mexican workers.
Milked is a warm-hearted and optimistic book with many facets. In giving us portraits of workers who are hardworking and responsible, but who usually want to go home to live a slower, more social life, it reminds us that the Western focus on growth and productivity is not the only path to happiness. It also argues indirectly for immigration reform by demonstrating the interdependence of workers and their employers that public policy should acknowledge.
A Wisconsin native and editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner, Conniff took as her starting point the annual journey to Mexico that farmers in that state have made for more than two decades to visit the families of dairy workers in their villages—most in Veracruz, a few in Puebla. She joined the 2019 trip and reported on joyful reunions with employees who have returned home, tearful pleas from wives anxious for news of their husbands, and cautious inquiries from teenagers contemplating departure for the north. With the assistance of a local Spanish teacher, the farmers and their workers have found mutual dependence and admiration that is sustaining dairies in that part of Wisconsin.
Beyond her account of the Mexican visits, Conniff also gave the reader ethnographic nuggets about the dreams and lives of the immigrants. Fatima took four years to send home enough money ($1000 every fifteen days) to pay for building a house for her family; “It’s not big, but it’s very comfortable for me,” she said.
Roberto and his boss (a rare farmer who did not vote for Trump and who became a pro-immigrant activist) became so close that they played golf together. Although Ezequiel was cheated and abused by his American boss, he told Conniff, “I have good memories of the six years I spent in Wisconsin and the friendships I made there.”
The book closes with a story of immigrant adjustment in the second generation: Kevin, the son of the earlier mentioned Roberto also wants to build a house for his family, but his house will be in the U.S.
Ruth Conniff has been touring the country to talk about how positive relationships like those of workers and their employers that she describes in her book can address the toxic divisions in American politics. She writes about this at commondreams.org.