Book Review by Tom Nelson — Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers (Ruth Conniff)
Few policy problems are easier to diagnose but more difficult to treat than the dairy crisis. “You have to change the economics,” my farmer uncle Dave tells me. A tax credit here, a federal subsidy there won’t do the trick. The system needs to be overhauled.
Growth management is the most far-reaching reform and Ruth Conniff addresses it in her new book, Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers. Under growth management, farmers produce milk up and until a certain price point to earn enough revenue to make it through the tumult of the market, kind of like how Apple makes just enough iPhones to be able to sell them at $1,000 a knock, as Conniff notes. If they produce more, they get less for their commodity. It’s akin to revenue sharing in Major League Baseball, where wealthier teams are taxed if they spend beyond a certain payroll.
Conniff’s book is a joy of a read. It’s broken down into chapters from the vantage point of an immigrant and farmer’s story, not unlike those of Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story, which tells a similar tale of economic duress among former autoworkers at the old Janesville GM plant.
Common themes resonate across the pages: unpredictable milk prices, alarmingly high suicide rates among farmers, a shameful, anti-humanitarian immigration policy that helps no one and the crushing influence of BigAg. My favorite chapter highlights the crusading work of then-state senator Russ Feingold against Monsanto, which developed a growth hormone (rBGH) designed to flood the market with more milk and further depress prices. It was the inspiration for my own campaign to ban rBGH milk from my college’s cafeteria.
The most gut-wrenching subplot was the illegal border crossings each migrant farmer had to take to get to their job. It was a big reason why migrants would stay years, sometimes a decade before returning to their homeland. The journeys were illegal, dangerous and costly — some paid with their lives.
Like Goldberg’s best-seller on working class America in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis, Conniff’s story could also be named, An American Story, but with one difference. Every migrant that came to America sought a better life for their families — but back in Mexico. Most labored night and day so they could build a house in their homeland, provide a good education for their kids and — like their American counterparts — a shot at the Mexican dream.