By Ken Kickbusch
Growth in the size of Wisconsin dairy farm herds has created a desperate shortage of labor willing to endure long hours, hard work and modest pay. Over the past 15 years, immigrant labor on Wisconsin dairy farms, documented and undocumented, has grown from 5% of the workforce to approximately 60% on the largest dairy operations.
The migrant path to Wisconsin dairies is well-known and has supplied dairy farmers with a reliable, stable, low-cost and admired workforce. Dairymen admit that this expansion and growth is dependent on competent migrant labor, without which the growth of the traditional Wisconsin dairy farm would not have been possible. Farmers and migrant workers have developed mutual relationships based on “don’t ask, don’t tell” in response to our government’s failure to address immigration reform.
Now, belatedly, federal action is attempting to reverse a policy of benign neglect that allowed the state’s farmers to meet their labor needs and immigrants to realize their dreams of employment and citizenship. As a consequence, fear has returned to the lives of both farmers and their employees, disrupting what have become stable migrant families integrated in the Wisconsin communities where they work and live.
In an article published by the Wisconsin State Journal on June 18 titled “Immigrant family flees Wisconsin for Mexico,” Alexandra Hall of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism describes the decision made by one undocumented farm family. As rumors circulated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had been seen in Pepin County, Miguel Hernandez, his wife, two children born in Wisconsin and four other employees left the Doug Knoepke dairy farm and returned to Mexico rather than face the chance of arrest and deportation. Hernandez had worked on the Knoepke farm for 16 years, was assistant herdsman, and was described by Knoepke as “our right hand.” The farm owner continued, “We’re saddened, scared. I don’t know where the industry would be without immigrant labor.”
While the interests of Wisconsin dairy farmers and that of the migrant laborers converge, that of the general public appears to diverge. Dairy farmers, needing labor and finding it in short supply in communities throughout the state, have welcomed competent, willing, reliable and affordable migrant labor. Migrants, in turn, seeking opportunities to escape poverty and political uncertainty, have willingly embraced Wisconsin farm life.
Public discussion about immigration, on the other hand, has reflected vague fears of the “other,” easily defined by language and skin color. Yet, in Wisconsin and throughout the nation, work that is often distasteful, hard, modestly rewarded and spurned by long-term residents is readily available to the migrant worker.
Principles of justice
The interests in conflict here are matters of social and political justice. John Rawls’ life work as a political philosopher offered a way to think about the competing claims of freedom and equality. In his premier work, “A Theory of Justice” (1971), Rawls offered “justice as fairness” as the central element in defining political and social justice. Rawls employs a “thought experiment” in order to arrive at the reasonable principles of justice. In a hypothetical scenario and under a “veil of ignorance,” where each of us is ignorant of our gender, age, race, country of origin, intelligence, skills, wealth and religion, what kind of a social and political structure would we choose? Ignorance of one’s original status, in theory, would improve the position of those who are worst off under the principles of justice chosen.
Using the above scenario, Rawls believed that two principles of justice would emerge: 1) each person would have an equal claim to a fully adequate set of basic liberties, and 2) equal economic opportunities would produce unequal results, but under the “difference principle” inequalities would not be allowed to grow at the expense of those who are least advantaged.
As one of the two leading dairy states in the nation, Wisconsin faces a unique challenge. Dairy farm work is difficult, daily, relentless work. Feeding, milking, cleaning, harvesting, all require gentle kindness, attention to detail and a belief that animals and the land will sustain us if the work is done well. Who will do this work?
As a youth growing up in the 1940s and 1950s on a 280-acre dairy farm in Chippewa County, Wis., this author came to understand that milking 45 cows, tending 65 head of young stock, and completing all of the seasonal work required to operate a successful Grade A dairy was beyond the capability of our family. A hired man was nearly always present. Was the “difference principle” employed? It was not.
Now, with dairy herds multiple times larger, who is willing to do this work? More pointedly, who is currently doing this work? Will these Wisconsin farmworkers and their families be permitted to thrive and become valued citizens in our communities? Will the principles of justice and fairness be extended to all who live and work in Wisconsin?
Farm families and rural communities throughout the state have welcomed, supported and celebrated the diversity that the new immigrants have brought. Now is the time to address the matters of political, economic and social justice.
Kickbusch grew up on a dairy farm in Chippewa County and now lives in Lodi. He owns a dairy farm in Crawford County.