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Invisible Hands

THE COWS AMBLE TOWARD THE MILKING PARLOR with a languid ease that brings a smile to Magdaleno Tecpile’s face. Such divas, those ladies. He whistles softly at the laggards, nodding toward the open gate at the front of the pen, before returning to the task of scraping their droppings from the barn floor. “They will go by themselves,” he says in Spanish. “They know when it’s time to be milked.”

In the daily rhythm of a modern dairy, routine breeds familiarity. It’s true for the cows, and so it is for Tecpile (pronounced Tec-PEE-lay), a dark-eyed young man whose face holds a strong memory of boyhood. Two years ago, living with his family in a village in rural eastern Mexico, he had never touched a dairy cow. Now he milks several hundred during a single 10-hour shift in the barn. For six days a week and 312 days a year—no holidays on a dairy farm—he ensures the uninterrupted flow of milk on the farm, one of the largest in Wisconsin’s Buffalo County. Without employees like him, owner John Rosenow says simply, “I would be in serious trouble.”

Rosenow is not alone. From Manitowoc to the Mississippi River, Wisconsin’s signature agricultural industry increasingly depends on people such as Tecpile—immigrants, chiefly from Mexico and Latin America, who followed the path of economic opportunity thousands of miles to the American heartland. According to a new study led by CALS rural sociologist Jill Harrison, at least 5,300 foreign-born laborers now work on Wisconsin dairy farms, representing more than 40 percent of the farms’ hired labor. On dairies with 1,200 cows or more, seven in 10 workers are immigrants, working an average of 57 hours a week.

Wisconsin’s signature agricultural industry increasingly depends on people such as Tecpile.

Those figures describe a fast-moving trend that has fundamentally changed the face of Wisconsin dairy in the past decade. But they also hint at issues that deeply divide the American political landscape. It is likely, for example, that a significant number of these new immigrants lack legal authorization to work in the United States. Although Harrison’s study didn’t ask about documentation—mostly because the answers workers offer to survey takers on the issue are predictably unreliable—other estimates say 40 to 70 percent of immigrants working in U.S. agricultural jobs are undocumented. Similar findings have been made in surveys of construction and hospitality workers, two other occupations that have become significantly populated by immigrants. Depending on whom you ask, the reliance of these industries on illegal workers is either an economic necessity or an intolerable flaunting of the law. Either way, it raises hard questions about national immigration policy, a debate that swirls in deeply held passions about economics, race and justice.

But in Buffalo County, those tensions play out on a smaller stage, in the daily thrum and churn of dairies like Rosenow’s, where the milking never stops in a parlor filled by the sounds of salsa music. “This is probably the biggest change to come to this community in 150 years,” says Carl Duley, UW-Extension’s agricultural agent for the county. And with change comes challenge … and opportunity.

Shouldered against an eastward jog of the Mississippi River an hour north of La Crosse, Buffalo County is archetypical Wisconsin dairy country, where cows outnumber people by nearly five to one. Some 200 dairy farms dot its 712 square miles, a rolling terrain of verdant valleys and towering bluffs that climb like stairs from the river basin. When German and Norwegian immigrants arrived here in the 1850s, they planted those valleys with wheat, but battling insects and the sloping terrain proved too much. Buffalo County has tied its fortunes to animals ever since.