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'Milked' explores the unique relationship between rural farmers in Wisconsin and Mexico

 Cover of 'Milked' by Ruth Conniff.
Cover of 'Milked' by Ruth Conniff.

Wisconsin has the highest farm bankruptcy of any state in the country. The impact has been devastating for communities that rely on farming and for farmers who feel their heritage is being lost as larger farm operations take over the industry.

For the farms that remain, Mexican workers have been essential to keeping them running—especially dairy farms, which have trouble recruiting local workers. But most of these Mexican workers are in a legally perilous position, as immigration laws have remained stagnant and the industry becomes more reliant on full-time workers.

"Anybody who's milking cows on a dairy farm in Wisconsin is probably undocumented if they're from Mexico because we just don't have a system that recognizes that work and makes it legal. Even though, by some estimates, it's now 80% of the labor on dairies in Wisconsin," says Ruth Conniff, editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner and author of the new book Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers. 

Milked explores the unique relationship between rural farmers in Mexico and Wisconsin and the perils facing the dairy industry, a central part of Wisconsin's cultural identity. For Mexican farmers, work in the U.S. has become essential, in part due to trade agreements that undercut their ability to make a living in Mexico. For Wisconsin farmers, Mexican workers have become the lifeblood of the industry, filling full-time positions that most U.S. workers are uninterested in doing.

Conniff says, "These two groups of rural people, that I got to know in writing my book, have found that they have a kind of shared, agrarian sensibility and that they've been thrown together in a way that is economically essential to both groups and to rural communities on both sides of the border. And also has become a personal relationship after decades of working together."

In some rural Wisconsin communities, Mexican workers have reinvigorated towns that had been dying. But there's a price to pay for living in a country where immigration laws make it difficult or impossible to find legal work. The book explores how this legally tenuous situation can force people to choose between a life of poverty in a supportive community or a life with full-time work in a hostile environment. Without Mexican workers, many Wisconsin farms would be unable to continue operating, but immigration laws ensure these workers remain in a vulnerable position.

"This is an economic reality and the national conversation about undocumented immigrants is, a lot of it, just completely irrelevant to what is already a well-established system that we have. We are not going back to not relying on these people... So it is just crazy that we haven't been able to reach an immigration reform program that simply recognizes that economic dependence," says Conniff.

 Conniff will be at Boswell Book Company for a live event on Wednesday, Aug. 3.

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Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect.
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