dairy farmers

Land of Milk and Immigrants

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.

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