‘It’s five years since a white person applied’: the immigrant workforce milking America’s cows

A growing Latino population is slowly shifting the demographics of US dairyland – and keeping the industry going

Products spring out from the walls of Veracruz Mexican market in Monroe, Wisconsin: packets of cinnamon sticks, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, tiny rainbow-colored sprinkles, chicle; a wall of healthcare like anxiety pills and vitamins for energy, and a shelf devoted entirely to various forms of muscle pain relief. A large meat case full of Mexican specialties, such as longaniza. Piñatas. Maíz. Jarritos. Chicharrones. And rosquillas, a treat in between a cracker and a cookie which is what newly arrived immigrants ask for most often, says Maribel Lobato. She and her husband Santos Tinoco have owned the store for 13 years in Monroe, a small city in Green county about 40 miles south of Madison.

The couple are often first contact for an increasing number of Latinos who immigrate to Monroe – which is 95% white – to work on dairy farms. “We can see the new faces because we know all the Latinos in Monroe,” says Lobato. She offers them donated furniture, clothes, a way to connect to home. An InterCambio Express telephone for sending money sits beneath an advertisement for a $19/hour job at a cheese factory, “but this place requires good papers”, customers in the store say in Spanish.

“I. Am. So. Busy,” says Lobato, who switches between speaking fast English and even faster Spanish.

When a family skidded off the road during their first winter in Monroe and the dad broke his arm in three places, Lobato took care of the kids. The store served as a Covid vaccination center. People bring traffic citations into the store they need help filling out; profiling is so common that after a certain number of tickets, many Latinos here just get a new car. Still, customers will risk the 40-minute drive from Beloit, a city in a neighboring county with a growing Latino population, to get the products they miss. About once a month, someone calls Lobato in the middle of the night to pick them up from the side of the road after their car is confiscated because they don’t have a license.

Across the street from the market, Latino men play pick up games of soccer at Twining Park on weekends. When Lobato and Tinoco arrived 20 years ago from Veracruz, Mexico to meet her brother who had found work on a dairy farm, visibility of Latino culture was rare. That will only continue to change.

As the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin declines, the size of dairy farms is increasing; large farms with thousands of cows that require round-the-clock milking, and by extension, a larger workforce. The foreign-born population in Wisconsin has grown by 45% since 2000, with rural counties seeing largest and fastest growth of that population. Immigrant workers make up approximately 40% of the workforce on Wisconsin dairy farms, and up to 90% are undocumented, according to UMOS, a multi-state farmworker advocacy organization, and the largest Hispanic-managed non-profit organization in Wisconsin. The shift in the way of dairy farming is slowly shifting the demographics of America’s dairyland.

Green county has seen one of the state’s fastest growths in Latino population, increasing by an estimated 228% from 2000 to 2019, according to the Applied Population Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Monroe is the largest city in Green county and has seen a steady increase of Latino immigrants over 20 years. With a population of only about 10,800, new people stand out, which has made the adjustment, like the farm work, incredibly difficult for some dairy workers.

But as the dairies grow, so will the new population. Work on dairy farms is year-round, not migratory, not seasonal, like on crop farms, which means employees are able to settle down. They build networks and lives. Día de los Muertos, and Las Posadas, a Mexican Christmas event, are celebrated not just in homes but out in the community, at the YMCA. White kindergartners now come home telling parents new Spanish words they learned, thanks to a language immersion program started two years ago in Monroe’s three elementary schools.

Where Americans get our milk is not a red barn, and the people doing the milking are not Mom and Pop, who happen to be white. Without the immigrant labor force on large farms, the nation’s dairy industry would be in crisis.

‘I sleep, eat, work … like bears’

Flies swarm through screenless front and back porch doors of the house where dairy worker Solomon , 38, who is undocumented, lives in Monroe. Inside, kitchen cabinet doors have fallen off, paint is peeling, and sheets serve as room dividers.

The house is hot and quiet. The five other men – all co-workers at the same dairy down the road – are either at work or dead asleep. The house’s owner is their boss at the dairy. The rent is taken directly out of Solomon’s checks.

“First, you’re afraid, they’re huge,” says Solomon, adding that cows in Mexico are “crazy” so it’s natural to be fearful. “Then you see other Latinos doing it and it’s like, OK, I can do it too,” he says through interpreter Natasha Morgan.

We can see the new faces because we know all the Latinos in Monroe. — Maribel Lobato, owner of Veracruz Mexican market

Morgan, who is white, grew up in Monroe and four years ago married a Mexican man; together, they have two kids and one on the way. It was through her job at a local non-profit that offers 24-hour crisis support for women that she first came to know this house. She recently helped a female dairy worker who had been living here but had just been fired. The woman didn’t understand why she was let go, but understood the owner wanted her out of the house, too, immediately. Morgan drove her and her child to a temporary safe house.

Female dairy workers with children hope to share a home with another mother so they can tag-team childcare, Morgan says. Other times, they take their children to work. Morgan says she knew of a dairy worker whose child slept in a playpen through the mother’s night shifts. Anything to keep working.

“We don’t ask for breaks,” says Solomon. He works 16 hour shifts cleaning stalls and feeding cows after milking for the first six months as a dairy worker. Sitting across from him their dining room table is Giovanni, Solomon’s 18-year-old nephew who is shy with a sparse mustache and wears long sleeves and jeans, despite mid-day June stickiness. He just got to Monroe a month ago from Veracruz. He works as a milker – most immigrants work positions that are repetitive, require little training, and sidestep the language barrier such as milking or pushing, which means bringing cows down to the parlor.

Full article here.

Summer Sewell