Dairy Farmers, Workers Help Each Other Survive

May 17, 2013

Dairy farmer John Rosenow stands in front of a semi truck. His 550 dairy cows fill one semi every day to sell across the street to the cheese factory.
COCHRANE, Wis. — John Rosenow is a fifth-generation dairy farmer, but times have changed since his Norwegian ancestors began farming in Cochrane, Wis. And Rosenow has changed with the times. Much of his workforce is now from Mexico, and Rosenow travels regularly to their village in southern Mexico to meet their families.

Rosenow wakes up every morning at 3:30. He used to work almost a hundred hours a week but he said he’s slowing down. Now he works closer to 80 hours and it’s not easy work.

"I considered quitting," Rosenow said. "But I would go to bed at night and ask myself, 'what I did today was it an honorable thing?' 'Can I feel good about it?' And I always answered yes. Then I thought of what I did during the day because I really wasn’t making any money. Did I like what I did? And I really loved what I did."

Rosenow’s business has grown. He and his workers now milk 550 cows, three times a day. Eight out of 20 hired laborers are from Mexico. Family and neighbors make up the rest.

"I’ve been called slave trader," Rosenow said. "I’ve been called someone that runs an underground railroad and probably a whole lot of worse things behind my back. What I basically am is I’m a dairy farmer trying to make a living in a difficult industry."

Rosenow actually pays fairly well -- $27,000 to $40,000 a year. He also pays for health care and housing for all of his workers. We know from surveys not all farmers treat their employees this well.

Out on the farm, the tall but gentle farmer tried to sweet-talk a new calf out of her hut.

"There you go," Rosenow said to a calf. "We’ve got something for you to eat out here."

Photo by Laurel Morales
The new calves are moved to individual huts right after they're born to avoid disease.

Rosenow guided me around the mud puddles on his farm to a semi truck that he fills up with milk each day and sells to the cheese creamery across the street. In addition to dairy farming he also has a profitable composting business. Rosenow scooped up a handful of what looks like rich black dirt.

"We sell that to gardeners and landscapers," Rosenow said. "Because of the rain it’s sopping wet right now."

When he started hiring workers from Mexico, Rosenow decided to learn Spanish. His interpreter, Shaun Duvall, suggested an immersion program in Mexico.

"We had a meeting because we had the trip all arranged," Duvall said. "And I said, ‘is there anything else you’d like to do?’ And John said, ‘well I’d like to see where my employees are from.’"

Since Rosenow has gone down, 150 other Wisconsin dairy farmers have followed.

"The employers realize that they owe these guys a lot more than just a paycheck," Duvall said. "And so they become interested in their welfare and in their family’s welfare. And they are extremely marginalized in these communities. They’re some of the poorest places in all of Mexico."

"It was quite a powerful experience to visit those people that are back there getting checks from their husband usually working up here," Rosenow said.

Photo by Laurel Morales
In addition to dairy farming John Rosenow also has a profitable compost business. It's essentially composted cow manure.

Without papers, most of these workers don’t risk a visit home. So they often do not see their families for years.

Erasmo has slept in after a late milking shift on Rosenow’s farm. He sits back in a recliner while others who share the kitchen come in and out while we talk. Erasmo points to a picture of his boss with his family in Vera Cruz. He didn’t want us to use his last name.

"Buena persona el patron yo lo respeto," Erasmo said. "Es buena gente."

He said, Rosenow is a good person. I respect him. He's good people.

Each time Rosenow goes back, he sees where the paychecks go. He has seen the standard of living in this village change. They go from dirt floors to concrete from cooking over a fire to a gas stove.

To push this process even further, he has given business classes to some of his workers who wish to use their paychecks to start a restaurant, bakery or other business back in Mexico someday.

Everybody on Rosenow’s farm comes from the same village. These days when someone leaves they send back a neighbor or cousin to take their place.

Rosenow’s optimistic the latest proposals for immigration reform will pass, eventually allowing his workers to visit their families whenever they want or bring them safely to Wisconsin to be with them.