US dairy farmers tend to be conservatives, but many
depend on immigrant workers to keep their operations
Republicans’ tough stance on immigration has created a
political rift between some farmers and their
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 civilization
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
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’ve 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
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
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’ve paid their full amount of federal
income tax, full amount of state tax. They’ve 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 utilize government insurance subsidies, and many in
the industry are wary of big business and
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
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 labor 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 fulfill the job role,” he
said. “We need immigrant labor 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 labor 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 labor 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 labor 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 $11.25 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
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 realize?'”
Maassen Dairy is part of an industry group called the Western Iowa Dairy Alliance, which has
organized 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
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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