Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Where your milk comes from

The world of migrant dairy workers who are ‘Milking in the Shadows’

Julie C. KellerFor readers of Julie C. Keller’s debut book, “Milking in the Shadows: Migrants and Mobility in America’s Dairyland,” the lighthearted slogan “Got Milk?” may never be the same.

Keller, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, brings to light the complicated realities of a population of undocumented Mexican migrants who are vital to the American dairy industry but are forced to work “in the shadows” because of restrictive U.S. immigration policies that leave them subject to isolation, arrest and deportation.

“Milking in the Shadows,” published in January by Rutgers University Press and the first book in its Inequality at Work series, looks at the Mexican migrants’ journeys from villages in Veracruz to dairy farms in the Upper Midwest. 

It details many facets of the labor system – the work migrants must do to secure jobs and plan border crossings; the isolation, exploitation and fear of detection they experience on the farms; and the views of a half-dozen farmers who rely on the workforce.

“I found that workers were experiencing these paradoxes of mobility, everyday movement that we take for granted,” says Keller. “I found that workers are really finding themselves caught in these paradoxes. Farmers want them to come here, they are often paying their way to take that dangerous journey to come here. Once they get here, there’s a feeling of being trapped and isolated on the farms.”

Keller, whose research interests include transnational migration from Latin America, new immigrant destinations and rural studies, began her research in 2010 while working on her doctorate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Keller learned of the population of Mexican dairy workers while researching her master’s thesis on female farmers.

“We know nothing about this group and their numbers are increasing,” says Keller. 

“They are not only largely responsible for keeping these dairy farms running, but for keeping the local economy running. So, I wanted to know who they are and where they’re coming from.”

A 2014 survey of U.S. dairy farms by agricultural economists at Texas A&M found that about 51 percent of all dairy workers were immigrants, and dairies that employed immigrant workers produced about 79 percent of the nation’s milk supply. 

In the Upper Midwest, the shift to migrant dairy workers started around 2000, Keller says. By 2008, a study estimated that about 40 percent – about 5,000 people – of hired dairy workers in the Upper Midwest were immigrants.

Between 2010 and 2012, Keller interviewed 60 migrant dairy workers from Veracruz. She spent six months in Veracruz, talking with 34 people who had returned from farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota. 

She interviewed another 26 migrant workers in those states. Because dairy work is year-round, the migrant workers were not eligible for an H-2A temporary agricultural visa, forcing them into risky border crossings to gain employment in the U.S.

Most of the migrants Keller interviewed in Veracruz had spent a year or more in the U.S., and the benefits of those trips were obvious. 

Many of them had built new concrete homes with modern fixtures, and were able to open businesses. But many of them, she says, were eager to return to U.S. farms to make wages that they could not in Veracruz.

“They’d tell me how great it was to be back home and seeing their families,” she says. “But they were just watching their savings evaporate.”

Through her interviews, Keller was able to chronicle the great lengths the migrants went to make the journey north.

Most of the migrants secured work on Midwest dairy farms through leads from family and friends already there. 

They then had to come up with the money to make the journey – taking out loans in their village or, at times, through advances from the farm owners themselves – and find a smuggler they could trust to get them across the border, Keller says.

“The more I talked with people,” she says, “the more I was understanding that this is a lot of work they’re engaged in that they’re not being paid for. They’re taking on an enormous burden, physical, emotionally, on all different levels, to put in this work to cross the border, and then engage in that dangerous crossing.

“During the crossing, there’s a sense of danger all the time,” she adds. “You hear people who really study the border – I don’t profess to study the border – the number of sexual assaults that happen, the number of homicides and armed robberies, all sorts of things. It’s frightening.”

Keller conducted her research during the Obama administration. But she returned to Veracruz in 2017, prior to the inauguration of President Donald Trump. 

The uncertainties caused by heightened calls for a border wall and beefed up immigration enforcement, left the handful of migrants she interviewed afraid and cautious, she says. But some told her they still would make the trip; others were considering trying farms in Canada.

Many of the migrants Keller interviewed on farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota faced isolation because of their immigration status, language barriers and simple lack of transportation.
The majority of the workers put in 60-hour workweeks with no designated day off. 

Most worked milking cows, making about $7.90 an hour, just above minimum wage. Wages included housing, but that could consist of a trailer onsite that housed numerous workers.

“In general, if you’re undocumented and if you’re a farm worker, the standard of life that you can expect is not comfortable,” says Keller. 

“You’re doing work in the shadows of a society, so you become vulnerable in many different ways. Even if you have this really great boss who supplies you with really quality housing, is very supportive of you and your desires, and if you want to switch shifts they’re open to that, even if you’re in that scenario, just think about the existing inequality that is still there.”

Keller, who is in her fourth year at URI, says “Milking in the Shadows” would fit well in many sociology classes, but hopes the book sheds light on the workers behind a household staple.
“I hope that people really think the next time they’re buying milk,” she says. “I just have this scene of being in a supermarket and you’re deciding what milk to choose. Are you thinking about the labor?”