Bubbler: Drinking fountain. Here, we know that a “water fountain” is something you throw coins into when you make a wish, not something you drink out of. That would be disgusting.
Church key: combination bottle/can opener
FIB: tourist, flatlander. In this case, specific to people from Illinois.We’ll let you figure out what the F and B are for.
Parking ramp: Multi-level parking structure (Probably a “garage” to you, but we all know that a garage has only one level. If you go between levels in a multi-tiered structure, it is via a ramp.)
Pop: soft drink (AKA “soda” but here we know that “soda” is Club Soda – the stuff you mix with Scotch to make a Scotch and Soda; or, in the south, “coke”, which to us is “Coke” and a specific brand of cola beverage, but to them is any kind of pop.)
TYME Machine: ATM. (The first ATMs here were owned by the same company. TYME stands for “Take Your Money Everywhere”. “TYME”, unlike “ATM”, has to be followed by “Machine”.)
Uff-da: Sort of like “oy vey”, but maybe more versatile. Said to ” express surprise, annoyance, relief, exhaustion, disappointment, astonishment, exasperation and dismay”.
Yah (actually ja): Yes. We were told not to use this word when we got to school or they’d know we were (I was never sure what they’d know about me, but I knew it was bad) – I think lazy. It’s Norwegian. I wasn’t sure if that was bad to admit. In some circles it was worse to admit to being Finnish than Norwegian.
Wisconsin tends to be sort of a small town place. I learned some lessons moving to the Big City. Here is one of them:
All this and more is available from the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). This is a project a friend of mine worked on about 50 years ago at the university here. It is a multi-volume dictionary, arranged by region, of course. It is still a work in progress, and now available online so it can be updated more frequently, but access is controlled by Harvard University. You have to have a subscription or an affiliation with an organization that has a subscription.
I’ll admit I didn’t look any of these up. They are just words I use that have earned funny looks. I just looked a few things up and I can’t believe other people don’t say them…like “supper club”. Is that really something other people don’t know? A supper club is a particular type of restaurant. They generally have Friday night fish fry, Saturday night prime rib, Sunday turkey dinner, and a salad bar. The salad bar should contain lots of cut glass bowls on ice, with things like three bean salad, potato salad, and pickled herring. There oughta be a piano bar or maybe a small combo playing easy-listening music. The bar better know how to make an Old Fashioned and know there is more than one kind. They should sell lots of Korbel brandy.
Or “shine”…do other people not know that this is a method of illegally hunting deer? You shine a light in their eyes, which makes them freeze in place so they’re easy to shoot.
“Sauerkraut”…really? You know what that is, right? Maybe I could see you not knowing kringle, krumkake, lutefisk, and lefse – those are all Norwegian foods. But you do know what German potato salad is, right?
Now I looked up all of the words I defined above and DARE doesn’t include some of them. Maybe I better tell them, eh?
In 1978, Ernest Feder published “Strawberry Imperialism”, a study of the transformation of Mexico from corn and beans grown by subsistence farmers to feed local markets, to corporate farms producing strawberries and other fresh produce for export to the United States. The book was originally published in 1977 as “El Imperialismo Fresa: Una Investigación Sobre Los Mecanismos de la Dependencia en la Agricultura Mexicana” and, as a Spanish Language Learner in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico in 1982, it was the first important work I read in my new language. I re-read it for this post.
In 2022, Ruth Conniff published “Milked: How an American Crisis Brought together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers”, an examination of rampant consolidation in the dairy industry and how that industry meets its labor needs. Reading it inspired me to re-read Feder.
So what does it mean about your strawberries and milk for breakfast?
America’s Dairyland was home to nearly 16,000 dairy farms in 2004. Fifteen years later, ⅔ of those farms were gone. In 1993 there were 30,000 dairy farms, so nearly half of those were already gone in 2004. A 1998 paper “The Changing Face of Wisconsin Dairy Farms: A Summary of PATS’ Research on Structural Change in the 1990s” looked at the size of herds broken down into five categories, with the largest being 200+. By 2022, Conniff was looking at 1000 as the cut point for large herds. While she may focus on the last 15 years, the crisis has been decades in the making.
America’s Dairyland still leads the US in cheese production, but California produces more fluid milk. California has almost 50% more cows on 1/10 as many farms.
To match the US farm labor crisis, Mexico had a farming crisis of its own. In the aftermath of NAFTA, corn prices plummeted as the US flooded Mexico with cheap corn. While Wisconsin had many small dairy farms, Mexico had many small corn, bean, and squash farms. 900,000 farming jobs were lost in Mexico in the decade after NAFTA was signed. The US shipped cheap corn to Mexico and Mexico shipped cheap labor to the US, sometimes in the same containers, according to John Peck of Family Farm Defenders.
One might argue that this is a win-win, but one would have to ignore the growing dependence on chemical farming and depletion of topsoil, the exploitation of undocumented workers, increasing need for antibiotics on farms, and the problem of what do with tons of manure. Cows in concentrated farming operations (CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – note that they don’t even call them farms) produce too much manure to spread on fields safely – it ends up stored on site (where it can wash away in heavy rains) or spread too thickly on fields, where runoff causes contamination of both ground and surface water.
Conniff traveled to meet Wisconsin dairy farmers and their undocumented workers, then spent a year living in Mexico, where she met with the families of those workers. [Interviews conducted in Spanish were translated by the author. The native language of some of the workers is Nahuatl, but they all spoke some Spanish.] Oftentimes, once one person is established in Wisconsin, other family members and neighbors migrate to the same farm, sending money back home to support families, build houses, and start businesses. Wisconsin gets the labor it needs to run large dairy operations and Mexico gets capital to build houses and start small businesses. Sounds good, eh? Just one problem – it is all illegal.
Conniff touches on the irony of Trump-supporting farmers who rely exclusively on undocumented immigrant workers to run their operations. While US law allows temporary work visas to migrant workers to come for a harvest season, there is no legal means for a farmworker to immigrate here to work year-round on a dairy farm. The stereotype is that these undocumented workers “steal” jobs from US-born workers. The reality is that farmers can’t find US-born workers to work the long hours at low wages that the dairy industry relies upon. Milking used to be done twice daily and is now routinely a 3 times/day chore. That means long hours and/or multiple shifts. Even the children of dairy farmers tend to eschew the work of their parents.
My personal involvement in this world was treating many farm workers for on-the-job injuries, from things such as being stomped, kicked or thrown by bovines, to slipping and falling into the large fans that move air through a dairy barn. Most are not insured and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. Few of them spoke English, making the process of being hospitalized scarier, especially when one lacks documents to be here. Their bills are written off as “charity cases”, but that doesn’t mean that hospital billing departments don’t try to squeeze blood from a turnip to collect. (One of the best parts of my job was I didn’t care whether or not the hospital got paid – I only cared if people got better and went home.)
I also found that, when I spoke with farmers about their work, those who worked their own farms had almost universally given up milking cows and switched to beef or cash crops. A dairy farmer cannot take a vacation, even a day off. Unless you are big enough to hire others to do much of the work, it has become too much. Farmers of my generation want to slow down, and most don’t have kids who want to go into the business.
Forty years earlier, Ernest Feder looked at the forerunner of this problem – a pre-NAFTA world, but one where US capital was already taking over Mexican agriculture. He begins by saying he isn’t “interested in the strawberry industry as such. It serves as an example of the domination of the agricultural sector by capital and foreign technology”. He quotes an unnamed businessman about a world in which “everyone is fucking over everyone else, with the objective that none of this enters the public consciousness”. [All translations by hfcc.]
By this time, Mexican agriculture was already well on the way from an indigenous agriculture to meet local needs to an export-oriented agriculture to meet luxury wants in the US. He notes that US capital controlled:
all factors of production (what to grow, how to grow it)
the prices of those factors
return on investment and how those returns are distributed.
As a result, the Mexican agricultural system was already developing into an arm of the US agricultural system, with essential decisions made outside of the country’s borders, for the benefit of others. Thus, the way was already being paved for the post-NAFTA invasion of US corn to further disrupt the Mexican farming economy. Feder rightly refers to the process as the “colonization of Mexican agriculture”.
Communally-controlled lands (ejidos) were taken over by industrial agricultural firms under foreign control under the guise of increasing efficiency. Feder notes “the myth”, perpetrated by these controlling interests, that “big business is more efficient than small farms”. He notes that “numerous economic studies have shown that small producers in Mexico are as efficient, if not more so, than large producers.”
Feder notes that prices were controlled by the processors so, when harvest was in full swing, processors would tell small producers that they had more product than they could handle, so they offered a reduced price. The farmer had the choice of taking less money or dumping the crop. Even when farmers had a contract with the packing house, the contract contained an out where the packinghouse could reject a crop at their sole judgement. (While this can be reasonable, in that poor quality and unsellable crops could be rejected, he quotes a local observer that “the packers robbed the farmers without modesty”.)
Mexico was the testing ground for the “green revolution” – a movement sold as a means to end world hunger, but actually a means to extend US agricultural dominance to the world – by selling patented seeds that required further inputs (fertilizers, pesticides) also purchased from the same large US-based firms. This ultimately led to Monsanto suing midwestern farmers for “stealing” their patented GMOs when Monsanto seed invaded neighboring fields. Monsanto has since agreed not to sue if farmers can prove that their possession of Monsanto seed is inadvertent and minimal. That doesn’t change the fact that said farmer cannot sell a crop as organic if it contains GMOs.
I must admit that, after decades of reading scientific papers, I read Feder’s work with a more jaundiced eye than I did 40 years ago. He raises questions and casts doubt, but makes unsupported claims. In discussing price fixing, he shows statistics demonstrating that prices paid to farmers were discounted at the peak of harvest, but adds “in reality, the official statistics underestimate the real discounts…” (How do we know this reality? Because he said so.)
This is not to say that Feder’s analysis is wrong – just that it is difficult to prove. His long history of scholarship in this arena lends him the benefit of the doubt. His evidence fits an established pattern.
Any analysis of fresh produce is made difficult by the nature of the product – it is highly perishable and relies on appearance for sales. Thus, a product may be nutritionally fine but unsellable to a market trained for visual perfection. When prices are set by supply and demand, they will go down at the peak of the harvest, when supplies are plentiful. To prove abuse of the system is difficult and requires analysis of trends over time and accounting for qualitative variables.
He makes a good case regarding the overestimation of the benefits to Mexico of the strawberry industry, noting that job creation is wildly overestimated by ignoring the short season. He also notes that the pay to strawberry pickers and packinghouse workers is much lower in Mexico than in the US, so even this benefit accrues more to the industry than to the workers. Feder quotes a local observer that “the strawberry is a poverty magnet”. People relocate for short-term jobs and end up living in the streets or spending their pay on transportation back home every night. Cities swell with short-term residents and services can’t keep up.
Those short-term workers take jobs without knowing the pay or benefits, as asking results in the response “We don’t have work for you today”. When there is work, it is under dangerous conditions. The Zamora Herald noted that “a high percentage of farmworkers suffer pesticide poisoning. Symptoms include fainting, vomiting, headache…after using insecticides without adequate protection…often with fatal results.”
While Feder’s information is not current, I use it to illustrate the continuing pattern of the abuse of Mexican farmworkers in both Mexico and the United States (just as he uses strawberries as an illustration of a larger pattern). He notes that “foreign capitalists like to argue that the transfer of capital and technologies to underdeveloped nations improves the working conditions. The processing of strawberries is an example of the falsity of that argument.” He reports 18 hour days (standing at a large table in a cold packinghouse with 80 others and not being allowed to talk) are common during peak times. While the specific abuses may be different, the pattern is unchanging.
So what is the future of agriculture and how do we feed the world? Is the family farm just a colorful relic of America’s past? Is industrial farming the only way to feed 8 or 10 billion people? Or can a return to a locally-based, chemical-free agrarian system save our soil before we deplete it completely, and provide us with enough nutritious food to sustain us? Stay tuned.
1830 the world’s population was One billion. 1930 2 billion. (doubled in 100 years) 1960 3 billion 1975 4 billion. (doubled in 45 years) 19875 billion. 19986 billion 20117 billion 2022 8 billion (doubled in 47 years).
About the authors: While you know the half-fast cycling club blogger as a half-fast bicyclist and retired health care worker, he worked with Young World Development under the auspices of the American Freedom from Hunger Foundation half a century ago (okay, a little more than that, but who’s counting?), so food and land use issues have been on his mind for a while. At the time “Strawberry Imperialism” was published, he was Produce Manager of the largest grocery coop in the midwestern United States and worked with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. He has lived in America’s Dairyland for 60 of the last 70 years. So while he may be full of hot air, he came by that hot air honestly.He is currently home sick, which makes reading and writing a better use of his time than going out in 36º (2º C) drizzle to ride a bike.
Ruth Conniff is a journalist in Madison, Wisconsin. Former editor of The Progressive magazine, she is now editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. Her work has also appeared in the Nation, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Isthmus of Madison.
Ernest Feder was a rural economist from Germany who wrote extensively on land use in Latin America. His books include Feudalism and Agricultural Development: The Role of Controlled Credit in Chile’s Agriculture, Perverse Development, Dairy Dilemma, Social Opposition to Peasant Movements and Its Effects in Latin America, Lean Cows–fat Ranchers: The International Ramifications of Mexico’s Beef Cattle Industry, and The Rape of the Peasantry: Latin America’s Landholding System.The titles alone make me want to read more of his work.
I drink from a cup labeled, “To Grandmother with love”. What’s up with that?
In 1984 I was the new kid in town, relocated from Wisconsin to Northern California. I was the backwoods rube to some and the whiz kid from the promised land to others. To Bonnie, I became “Mom”. (Need I say she was older than I?)
I grew up in Wisconsin and never thought I’d leave. Circumstances in 1983 changed all that. I went to a national conference that fall, resumes in hand, looking for work. I was offered a job as the Maintenance Director of a low-income housing co-op in Santa Clara, California. Seventy nine families jointly owned a sprawling townhouse project, complete with swimming pool. In 1963 someone had convinced HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) that even poor people needed swimming pools in the desert. Among new skills, I learned swimming pool maintenance.
I bought a beat-up 1975 GMC van to move my self and stuff to California. I hadn’t had a car for over 10 years (and even that one I’d only used for a year or so; it mostly sitting parked). Arriving in California, I quickly discovered how attached people were to their cars. Many felt sorry for me. I had planned to move out there and resell the van. It became apparent quickly that it had no resale value and that a car becomes a necessity in a place like that. When the van died, I almost bought a 1962 Jaguar (like that driven by Inspector Morse in the BBC series). Instead I bought a Toyota Corolla.
I was offered a scholarship to attend Co-op Camp Sierra, a training center in the mountains near Shaver Lake. I soon discovered that Wisconsin was seen as the center of the co-op world. We had had a vibrant co-op economy starting in the 1920s, when Finnish immigrants in the northwoods developed their own co-op label products.
Even the little co-op I had co-founded was known out there. We were seen as the vanguard. As my friend who worked as a management consultant said at the beginning of his seminars, “a consultant is an ordinary person far from home.” I discovered the truth of this in California. Ideas that nobody listened to here were seen as wisdom out there. Crackpot schemes here were paid for there. Folks seem to think that the more they pay for something, the more it is worth. If an employee you’re already paying has an idea, it is of no value. If the same sentiment is echoed by a high-priced consultant, it is now the word of god.
Another consultant friend was charging $250/day for his services. He was subcontracting Bay Area work to me so he could travel less. He decided he wanted to work less, so he raised his rate to $400/day. He had more work than he could handle. If he charged $400/day, he must be good! (Or so folks thought.)
So I got to camp and was soon put to work. From the shy backwoods kid who didn’t know anybody, I suddenly was thrust into the midst of running the camp, and was forced out of my shell. Bonnie, the Camp Manager, made me her Administrative Assistant. That’s fancy talk for what she really called me – “Mom”. My job was to make sure she got everywhere on time, that she had all of her stuff with her (a rolling suitcase on mountain trails isn’t the easiest thing to move around), and that no one stole her cigarette lighter to sell at the camp auction. I failed miserably at that last task one year, when it was I who stole it and ran up the bidding at the auction – as auctioneer and co-conspirator, I planted a few shills.
Bonnie had grown children and one year they gave me the pictured mug at camp to thank me for keeping their mom in line; and that’s how I became a grandmother before I turned 40.
Testifying before the Senate in support of the National Consumer Co-operative Bank Act, Bonnie said, “The co-op is my church.” [From National Consumer Cooperative Bank Act: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions…]
Bonnie died too young. One of the campers had once asked me to nominate her for a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius grant”) for her work at camp and in the co-op community. That’s how much my “daughter” was valued by those around her.
A Modest Proposal (with apologies to J. Swift)
US Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) has suggested that we keep COVID-19 in perspective: “We don’t shut down our economies because tens of thousands of people die on the highways”; COVID-19 “isn’t a death sentence except to maybe no more than 3.4% of our population”.
Since 3.4% of our population is not ten thousand but more than ten million people, perhaps he is responding to what he sees as overpopulation. COVID-19 may be his way of thinning the herd, bringing our population down to a more acceptable level. If that is the case, perhaps we could just eliminate, for example, the Dallas and Seattle metropolitan areas with a couple of well-placed large bombs. This would lower the population and eliminate crumbling infrastructure. He may prefer other cities. Let us not quibble over details. Eliminating the entire state of Wisconsin would only get rid of half as many people and, besides, where would folks from Illinois go for vacations?
to my Cycle America community. To jog your memories, there will be one photo from each week, none of which have appeared here before:
We have now been back in our respective real worlds for longer than we were away in our circus world. We used that metaphor during the trip because it seemed apt – we rolled into a new town every night, set up our tents, and were gone in the morning before most people were up and about. We didn’t put on much of a show, but…
It’s also timely because I spent three days of the last week in Baraboo, home of the Ringling Brothers and the Circus World Museum. It was also where, for me, the two worlds intersected. My friends, my son and his wife, and my boss all came to Baraboo when the Cycle America Circus rolled through. It was my reminder that our circus world was fleeting, that the other world beckoned. It was the best of times…
And now we’re scattered across the globe doing whatever it is we normally
do; though even that is new for some – Ally went from being a student to being a nurse during those nine weeks. Mike stayed away longer than the rest of us to ride down the west coast of the US. How’d that go, Mike?
Did anybody do a Johnny Paycheck when going back to work?
I miss that world. I missed the daily routine of riding already by the first Monday I was home. I had my day of rest and was ready to ride again. I’m still looking for anyone who wants to pay me to ride my bike. From the headwaters of the Mississippi to the delta seems like a good route. Who’ll drive sag?
But I also miss all of you. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get all hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya on you. If we all lived in the same town it’s not like we’d all be hanging out every night after work (those of us who do still work) or be drinking coffee together every morning at the corner cafe (for the retired among us).
But we had a community for those nine weeks; a loose-knit one, perhaps, but we shared something I will never forget. We shared fun, we shared miseries, we shared deeply transforming moments. We found out what we were made of. Some of you, who had done this before, may have had no doubts about it. But I bet most of us had moments when we weren’t really sure what we had gotten into, weren’t really sure we could do this. But we did. And we probably knew that all along but it seemed too arrogant to say out loud, just as voicing the fears seemed too insecure to say out loud.
We ate some great food and some food that we may not have eaten had we not just ridden 80 miles. We saw the USA in a way that most people never will. We didn’t fly over flyover country. We didn’t cross the plains at 80 mph (~130 km/h for those of the metric persuasion), staring at the ribbon of pavement and ignoring all else. We did wake up sober in Nebraska (or close to it – Nebraska, I mean). Climbing mountain passes didn’t mean just stepping harder on the accelerator.
We did all that, and we did it together. I, for one, already think about a reunion. It’s entirely possible we will never see each other again. I know some of you are friends in real life and do hang out. The rest of us? Maybe we’d feel awkward, not knowing what to say. Maybe we’d need a long ride together with margaritas to follow. Maybe a short ride, but actually together as a group, like the brief stretches when we were together for ferry crossings or through construction zones.
And maybe doing it again in 2020 doesn’t sound crazy after all. (Don’t tell anyone here I said that!) If those of you with the wherewithal to do it again do it, I’ll meet you in Baraboo with a case of beer. Or we can find an Irish pub and Mike can show the bartenders the proper way to pull a pint of Guinness.