Complexities Abound Inside Dairy Farming

October 28, 2022 By Eric Ely-Ledesma, Friends of UW-Madison Libraries board member

Ruth Conniff, WI Book Festival Author Sponsored by the Friends

As part of the 2022 Wisconsin Book Festival, the Friends board member Ken Frazier introduced Ruth Conniff to an audience of about 65 in the Wisconsin Historical Society on Saturday, October 15. After introducing her book and providing an informative overview, Conniff read selections from her work before opening the floor for questions. Participants had no problem filling the remaining 30-minutes with various questions and comments, ranging from curiosity regarding how undocumented people crossed the border, how they accessed health care, and how they managed without driver’s licenses (Wisconsin is not one of the 16 states and the District of Columbia currently offer driving licenses to people who are undocumented). Questions also included curiosity regarding how U.S. farmers reconcile their conservative political stance (many supported and voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections) with the realities and understanding that their livelihoods depend upon undocumented Mexican workers. Remaining engaged and upbeat throughout her presentation and Q&A section, Conniff spoke confidently from both firsthand knowledge and extensive research.

As this is a subject about which many Wisconsinites are passionate, the following is a taste of what can be discovered within the pages of Conniff’s first book.

“John Rosenow and Stan Linder, two septuagenarian dairy farmers from Western Wisconsin, are driving along a winding mountain highway in Veracruz. A snow-capped volcano, the Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak, looms on the horizon as Stan’s Ford Transit van navigates the narrow road, past lumbering donkeys, wooden shacks with piles of charcoal for sale outside, sheep crazing on the steep hillsides, and a man with a team of oxen plowing a field in the valley below.”

So opens Ruth Conniff’s Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers. Over the next 277 pages, Conniff discusses the situation that brought John and Stan, in addition to numerous other farmers from Wisconsin and Minnesota, to the state of Veracruz, Mexico, an elongated state with the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the western portion of the state gradually giving way to coastal plains along the state’s 429 miles of coastline with the Gulf of Mexico.

Via detailed profiles of Mexican and estadounidenses (U.S. Americans[1]), Conniff explores the various components that form a complex network of economic, political, and legal conditions that make midwestern dairy farms dependent upon undocumented[2] Mexican workers, who, unlike seasonal migrant agricultural workers, who can legally work in the U.S. via an H2-A visa, are unable to obtain visas to work legally in the United States (because such visas do not exist). Alternating between small town rural Wisconsin, often in the bitterly cold winters, and small town rural Veracruz, Conniff repeatedly emphasizes the similarities between the U.S. American farmers – themselves immigrants to the United States – and the undocumented Mexican workers, without whom the farms could not operate. “‘At first we wanted to have local people working here,’ he [Rosenow] says, But after a series of unfortunate experiences, including having a new hire quit right after they started and one employee who showed up drunk, he [Rosenow] says, ‘We became less trying-to-save-the-world and more trying-to-save-our-ass.’” On trips to Mexico organized by the nonprofit Puentes/Bridges program, which connects U.S. farmers to their Mexican workers, the farmers who participate are, among other things, surprised by how much they have in common with their workers.

[For more on the Puentes/Bridges program, see this PBS NewsHour production from 2019]

[1] I refrain from using the term “American” when referring to people from the United States. The United States is but one country that comprises the continent of North America.

[2] I use the term undocumented intentionally when referring to people in the United States without formalized, legal recognition of their presence.