immigrant workers

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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Grace, Magic, and Hard Work

Beyond the typical objections that the Harry Potter books will turn children into Satan-worshipers and encourage them to disrespect authority, one mom complained that she found it inappropriate that at Hogwarts food magically appears on the table at mealtime. Her argument was that she wants her children to have a good work ethic and not to believe that anything in life is free. She wanted her girls to know that preparing meals is hard work and so would therefore be sheltering them from this absurd depiction of people getting something for nothing.

I think at the time I had to restrain myself from asking if she also banned her kids from hearing the story of the feeding on the 5,000 in Sunday school, but it was hard not to think about her objection a few months later as I read The Goblet of Fire and its subplot about house elves. As it revealed, food does not magically appear on the tables at Hogwarts, it is prepared by hardworking elves who in the wizarding world are generally kept as slaves.