A bridge for the divide between Midwestern farmers and their immigrant workers

Dairy farmer John Rosenow (r.) talks with one of his workers, Roberto Acahua.

Richard Mertens

On the farm of Nettie and John Rosenow, folded in the hills of western Wisconsin, 18 massive Holstein cows file in to be milked, jostling and pushing as they find a place. Mr. Rosenow lends a hand, prodding with a broom handle, while a young man wearing rubber gloves and boots moves quickly up and down the line, disinfecting each cow and attaching the milking machines’ rubber cups.

Rosenow has been up since 3:30 a.m., slipping out before dawn “just to check things out.” Born and bred a dairy farmer – he’s the fifth generation of Rosenows here – he began milking cows when just a boy. But he seldom milks anymore. He spends his days selling cow-manure compost – a profitable sideline on the Rosenow farm – while 20 employees do the farm’s heavy work: milking a herd of more than 500 cows, scraping manure, hauling feed and sawdust bedding, filling bags of compost, tending calves, and watching over the maternity shed, where on this day a cow is recovering from a late-night cesarean.

Two decades ago, Rosenow and other dairy farmers faced a crisis. For years they had relied on family members, high school students, and other local help to run their farms. But the farms were getting bigger and local people less willing to do the hard, dirty, low-paid work of dairying. In desperation, the farmers turned to workers from Mexico. Rosenow was one of the first.

Why We Wrote This

Although immigration can be a hot-button political topic, this story takes a more personal approach, looking at how some farmers have improved operations by getting to know their foreign workers better.

“We didn’t want to do this,” he says. “We wanted to hire locally. But we had no choice.”

It’s a familiar story in US agriculture. But it was disorienting to the dairy farmers, who worked closely with their employees and yet knew little of the new workers’ language, customs, and culture.

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“They were scared to do it,” says Rosenow, explaining that other farmers asked him for advice. “Why would you want to hire someone to work for you who speaks another language? It wasn’t something we were used to in the Midwest.”

The agricultural agent at the University of Wisconsin’s Buffalo County extension office saw what was happening and recruited a local schoolteacher, Shaun Duvall, to instruct the farmers in Spanish. Ms. Duvall focused on the language of dairying, but the farmers didn’t learn much. “I had no idea it was that hard,” Rosenow says.

So Duvall doubled down. She took them to an intensive language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico. At the end of a week, they made a side trip to Veracruz, the mountainous state from which most of the workers hailed. Some of the families came down from their villages to meet them. The visit created a local sensation: People told the farmers it was the first time employers from the United States had ever come to Veracruz.

“I came away thinking that this was one of the most powerful things I’d ever done,” Rosenow says. “I thought, this has to continue.”

The visits did continue, and a few years later, he helped Duvall start Puentes/Bridges, a nonprofit that sponsors trips to Mexico. More than 150 farmers have made the trips, most of them from western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota. “It’s opened their eyes to a different culture,” Rosenow says.

Duvall says it’s also made them better employers – more compassionate. “It’s helped them understand why their employees do what they do. It’s built trust and commitment between employer and employees. That’s the greatest thing about it,” she says.

Hugs and pictures

The focus of the trips today is less on learning Spanish and more on introducing the farmers to the workers’ families. They exchange hugs, hold small children, and pose for pictures. They pass along clothes, shoes, and sometimes tools from up north. They receive tortilla towels (to keep the tortillas warm when they’re served), beans, and other gifts to take back.

“It’s always a little awkward,” says Duvall, who has organized the trips and served until last year as the program’s director. “What do you say after hi? They always have a meal. Chicken and tortillas, or eggs and tortillas. Some kind of very simple meal. Beans. It’s always prepared with great love and respect. They’re excited we’re there. Mostly it’s, ‘How’s my son?’ ‘How are they doing?’ ”

Rosenow has gone nine times. He’s seen the poverty that sends workers north. He’s observed how workers use their earnings to build bigger and stronger houses and send their children to school. And yes, he’s gotten to know their families. “It’s had a huge impact on how my employees see me,” he says.

On an early trip, Rosenow discovered that one of his workers had opened a bakery. “I had no idea,” he says. He returned home determined to help other workers who wanted to start businesses. He found a teacher at a local university who agreed to give classes on entrepreneurship.

The dairy workers of western Wisconsin are not Hispanic but indigenous. They descend from the Aztecs, and their first language is Nahuatl. Often as many as half of the men from a village are working in the US. Usually they stay a few years and then go home. Many, perhaps most, enter the country illegally.

Rosenow found his first Mexican worker through an ad in the back pages of Hoard’s Dairyman, a magazine for dairy farmers. He met the man at a bus station in Winona, Minn. They couldn’t exchange more than a few words, but “he knew what he was doing,” Rosenow says. The man worked seven days a week and refused to take a vacation. “I thought, ‘Wow!’ ” Rosenow says. “The only person I knew who would work that hard was me.”

It’s a typical reaction. Farmers say the more they get to know their workers, the more they see how much they have in common, including an affinity for rural life and a willingness to work hard. “You just like people who are on your side,” says Stan Linder, a farmer in Stockholm, Wis., who has gone on 11 Puentes/Bridges trips, more than anyone else.

Jill Harrison, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has spent years studying Wisconsin dairy workers. She applauds the work of Puentes/Bridges. “They’re building compassion among people for immigrant workers,” she says. “They’re humanizing them.” But, she says, even the most sympathetic farmer cannot erase difficult circumstances for the workers, including isolation, homesickness, poverty, and hard physical labor.

“These are rough jobs, with long hours, late-night shifts, cold, manure,” she says. “It’s very dangerous. They’re making just over the minimum wage.”

US dairy farmers employ tens of thousands of foreign workers. But efforts to foster better relations between the two groups have been rare. Puentes/Bridges inspired a similar program for dairy farmers in upstate New York, but the trips lasted just two years. “It was too dangerous,” says Thomas Maloney, an extension agent at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who organized the trips.

Amid the federal crackdown

Meanwhile, the federal crackdown on unauthorized immigrants has cast a shadow over dairy farms, uniting farmers and workers in a common anxiety. According to Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights group in Milwaukee, immigration authorities recently detained four dairy workers in Wisconsin. US farm groups have tried to persuade lawmakers to introduce a visa program for dairy workers, but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“I’ll tell you what I want,” Rosenow says. “It worked well when they weren’t enforcing the law. Let the market decide.”

He’s in his office now, taking orders for compost. He wears an old pair of striped overalls. His phone buzzes frequently, and truckers come through the door, asking for a load.

After a while he goes out to show a visitor around. About half his workers are from Mexico, including the young man in the milking parlor. As he moves about the farm, he exchanges small talk in Spanish.

“I can communicate if it’s not completely out of the ordinary,” he says. Sometimes it’s a struggle. He spends several minutes with a worker in the maternity shed trying to determine what animals the man is raising in his feedlot back home. “Alimento,” he says. “Animales?” They go back and forth until Rosenow finally understands. “Sheep!”

Out in the yard, two men wrestle with a giant polyester tote of compost while a forklift waits to sling it into a waiting truck. One of them is Roberto Acahua, who has a knit cap pulled low over his forehead. Mr. Acahua comes from Astacinga, Mexico, a mountain village of 723 inhabitants. He’s worked on the Rosenow farm for four years.

“It’s a nice place,” he says. He explains that working on a dairy farm is “kind of hard” but that he has to do it. “My children need support,” he says. “We need the money. We have no choice.” At home, he says, he can earn $7 a day in construction. On the Rosenow farm, workers earn between $10 and $14 an hour.

“The only thing is, we have no freedom up here,” he says. “If you drive and get pulled over, you can get in trouble.”

Rosenow says that finding employees like Acahua has been “the best thing that’s happened” to dairy farming.

“We were going to make the experience here with immigrants, especially with Mexican immigrants on dairy farms, a good experience rather than a bad experience,” he says. “I think we’ve accomplished that.”

For more, visit puentesbridges.org.

Three other groups involved in food issues

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that are involved with providing food or growing it:

Warren Majengo Foundation gives stability, security, and support to vulnerable children in Tanzania who have nowhere else to turn. Take action: Help pay for food for these children.

Osa Conservation applies scientific and other expertise to protecting the biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. Take action: Assist in maintaining a sustainable farm.

Helen Keller International aids vulnerable individuals by combating blindness, poor health, and malnutrition. Take action: Donate money to empower women through gardening.