- US dairy farmers tend to be conservatives, but many depend on immigrant workers to keep their operations running.
- Republicans’ tough stance on immigration has created a political rift between some farmers and their representatives.
- This disconnect highlights the complicated place farmers hold in American politics.
MAURICE, Iowa — The congressman who has represented northwest Iowa for 15 years once suggested that Mexican immigrants had “calves the size of cantaloupes” from smuggling drugs across the border. He has been seen with a Confederate flag on his desk (though Iowa supported the Union Army), and he tweeted in March that the US “can’t restore our civilisation with somebody else’s babies.”
He even built a model of a border wall on the floor of Congress in 2006 — nearly a decade before Donald Trump adopted the cause.
But on the farms that fill Steve King’s district, his constituents have more nuanced, complicated politics than the Republican congressman’s rhetoric might suggest.
Thousands of immigrants have moved to northwest Iowa in recent decades, attracted by farms and meat producers in need of workers willing to raise pigs, milk cows, or butcher animals. Between 2000 and 2015, the Latino population in Sioux Center, one of the larger cities in the district, more than tripled. According to the census, King’s district is now home to nearly 50,000 people who consider themselves Hispanic or Latino — about 6% of the area’s population.
That means that even some of King’s supporters — he took 61% of the vote in November — are being forced to reconcile their conservative politics with a business reality that has taken on a moral weight. They rely on immigrants, and some will go to extraordinary lengths to support them.
‘They have done everything as a citizen should’
Maassen Dairy sits on a rural, unpaved road in Maurice, Iowa, less than half an hour from the South Dakota border. The Maassen family started producing milk on the land with about 15 cows during the 1920s. Five generations later, that number has grown to more than 1,300, and the animals spend their days in a covered, open-air barn, a pile of food easily reachable through a metal gate.
Lee Maassen grew up on the farm and started working there full-time soon after he got married at age 20. He now runs the operation with his sons.
On nearly every issue, Maassen is a reliably conservative voter. He supported King and Trump in the latest election. He agrees with King’s positions on limiting environmental regulation, he said, and on what Maassen refers to as “morality issues” like abortion.
But on immigration, they diverge. For the past 30 years, the Maassen family has been hiring more and more immigrant workers — of the 26 employees currently at Maassen Dairy, 16 are immigrants, mostly from Mexico. The family has even sponsored many to apply for citizenship. Often, that involved accompanying the workers on the more than two-hour drive to the Mexican consulate in Omaha, Nebraska, since there isn’t one in Iowa.
Maassen estimates his family has successfully helped half a dozen immigrant workers become citizens since they hired their first Mexican employee in 1985.
“All of our workers, they have paid their full amount of federal income tax, full amount of state tax. They have done everything as a citizen should,” he told Business Insider. “So why shouldn’t they be granted that? That’s why we need some reform.”
Maassen knows, however, that his idea of reform doesn’t align with the one espoused by King and other Republican politicians — especially since Trump’s election.
“The stance is sometimes really negative: Anybody that’s not classified, an immigrant, we’re going to send them all back, we’re going to close down the border, whatever,” he said of those with hardline stances on immigration. “But I’m thinking, do you really understand what the full impact of that would be?”
Immigrants or robots
Farmers are fairly accustomed to occupying a unique, complicated place in American politics.
They make up less than 2% of the US population, but their work has a dramatically disproportionate effect on the country’s economy. Environmental regulations affect them heavily, yet a changing climate can threaten their livelihoods. They generally vote Republican, but plenty of crop farmers utilise government insurance subsidies, and many in the industry are wary of big business and increasing consolidation.
Plus, free trade has proved a boon for agriculture — the value of US dairy-product exports more than quadrupled from 2004 to 2014, and pork exports have increased nearly elevenfold since 2000 — but farmers were left in a lurch after both Democrats and Republicans came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the 2016 election.
However, nowhere is farmers’ complex political position clearer than on immigration.
The Department of Agriculture estimated that only about 22% of the country’s crop farm workers in 2013 and 2014 were born in the US. Immigrants also permeate many other agricultural sectors that get less attention. Dairy workers aren’t employed seasonally. They don’t toil in fields picking delicate fruit like grapes or strawberries. And many don’t work anywhere near the Mexico-US border.
No nationally gathered statistics are available about laborers in livestock industries. But in a report put together for the National Milk Producers Federation in 2015 based on a survey of 1,000 dairy farms around the country, responses indicated that immigrants accounted for 51% of all dairy labour in the US, and that dairies employing immigrants produced 79% of the country’s total milk supply.
It’s the physical nature of dairy farming, Maassen said, that has made it almost impossible to fill positions with Iowa natives.
“We can’t find enough employees to fulfil the job role,” he said. “We need immigrant labour in order to do that.”
A crackdown on immigration would dramatically affect Maassen’s business — and the dairy industry overall. The NMPF report estimated that eliminating immigrant labour would cause the total number of dairy farms in the US to drop by over 7,000 and retail milk prices to increase by 90%.
“We’ve thought about that and considered what’s our disaster program if that would happen,” Maassen said of that worst-case scenario. “It would affect us greatly. We’d have to make some adjustments to how we’d hire the labour in order to do it. We’d have to switch over to all robots.”
Some dairy farms around the US have installed robotic milking machines to eliminate the problems that come from labour shortages and employee management. But for now, Maassen is sticking with his workers.
‘What more could one want, right?’
The cows at Maassen Dairy get milked three times a day, seven days a week. There are shifts around the clock.
Pilar Garrido spends her eight-hour shift in the farm’s milking parlor with two other employees, Mexican radio playing as groups of well-trained cows file onto elevated platforms. Garrido and her colleagues walk by each cow and coat her udders with a disinfecting cleaner, which stimulates the cow to let her milk down, the same way a nuzzling calf might.
After the cows have been cleaned and wiped, the workers attach milking tubes to each teat. The tubes pop off when the supply of milk is exhausted, and then the workers clean the udders once more before the cows leave and a new group is herded in.
“It’s hard because you’re working the whole eight hours, moving your feet, arms, the whole body,” Garrido, who emigrated to the US from Pachuca, Mexico, 15 years ago, told Business Insider in Spanish while the cows were being milked. “You arrive [home] wanting to bathe and go to sleep and not think about anything.”
Garrido and the others who do this work must power-wash the parlor several times per day. Other workers must also replenish the cows’ food and push it back into accessible piles. A few are in charge of herding the groups into the milking parlor. And then there are the cows ready for artificial insemination, since dairy cows are kept in a nearly permanent postpartum state. And there are the inevitable calves that need tending to.
Garrido said she grew up in a humble, country family and enjoys being with animals. But the work was all new to Mirza Salazar, who shares a shift with Garrido.
“I had an office career,” Salazar said in Spanish as Garrido tended to the cows behind her. She moved from Mexico City to Iowa in 2005, she said, because she had family in the area.
“Here, I learned to milk, about the outdoors, about maternity, I learned all of this,” Salazar said. “It’s very different. It’s tough. It’s simple, but it’s also humble, and it’s a job.”
Salazar and Garrido both fled abusive husbands — Salazar left hers in Mexico, and Garrido separated from hers in Chicago. Each is now raising kids solo. Garrido earns $US11.25 an hour and manages to send money back to her parents in Mexico every month or two on top of providing for her kids.
“What more could one want, right? To improve and continue moving forward,” she said. “This is a lovely job, very honorable, and I like it.”
Fear, dialogue, and compromise
Step off Maassen’s farm, and there’s more fear. Garrido said she respected Trump and his decisions but had heard of many in the immigrant community losing hope.
“It causes a lot of remorse to go out into the street, and you don’t know if you’re going to return,” she said. “It’s almost as if you’re like, ‘Oh God, help me to get to work, and God help me to return home.'”
Maassen knows his employees have a heightened awareness of immigration politics since the presidential election. He, too, worries about Trump’s and King’s positions on the issue.
“I had some fear,” he said of King’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. “That’s why we met with Steve King a number of times, just to say, ‘Do you realise?'”
Maassen Dairy is part of an industry group called the Western Iowa Dairy Alliance, which has organised discussions between the state’s dairy farmers and their political representatives. Through those efforts, Maassen attempted to explain his situation to King a couple of years ago. He has also met with Republican Sen. Charles Grassley.
King did not return Business Insider’s request for comment on those meetings, and WIDA representatives said they didn’t believe the conversations led to any noticeable changes in King’s position. But Maassen believes the group did have some success in conveying to King what the consequences of an immigration crackdown would be for his voters. He thinks Trump, too, has been tempered since the campaign.
“Even from a conservative approach, there’s compromise being done already on that as we’re working through it, working for an alternative,” Maassen said.
He might be right — Trump told farmers at a roundtable in May that he would make sure his tough immigration-enforcement policies wouldn’t harm the agriculture industry. And despite King’s years of inflammatory comments, the congressman hasn’t succeeded in enacting many laws that have changed how Maassen goes about his business or his hiring.
That leaves Maassen free to base his vote on the other issues that matter to him — abortion, regulation, taxes. And it leaves King free to keep stepping into the bright spotlight of controversy, all the while hanging onto a decade-old model of a wall that’s unlikely to be built.
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