Rural delivery: Hispanic immigrants help rural county stave off population dip
Published: October 12, 2012
By Mario Koran and Lukas Keapproth
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
CHILI — Jeremy Meissner squints in the sunbaked pasture near his 2,200-head Clark County dairy farm. Huron Mireles, 31, a herdsman and one of Meissner’s most dependable employees, joins him in the field as the two discuss the day’s work.
Meissner, 29, grew up on this family farm and always knew he would return, to live and to raise his own family.
Unlike many rural Wisconsin counties, Clark County added population from 2000-10, growing by 3.4 percent, to an estimated 34,690. The growth was fueled in part by the Hispanic population, which grew by 219 percent from 2000-10. At the same time, white population grew less than 1 percent.
“Overall, there’s an important effect and important contribution of the Hispanic population,” said Katherine Curtis, assistant professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“In local communities we often hear about their importance in keeping the dairy industry afloat and rural schools open — in some cases, just keeping rural communities alive.”
In agriculture-based counties such as Clark, Hispanic workers and their young families rejuvenate an aging labor force. Hispanics now make up an estimated 40 percent of all of the state’s dairy workers.
“Around here, you get Hispanic workers, a lot, stopping by, looking for work with experience, which is hard to come by,” Meissner said. “Hispanics [are] very good workers. … They care about the cows and making the farm profitable.”
Even so, hiring Hispanic workers is not something he advertises.
“We usually just talk about it because people are dead set against it,” Meissner said.
Some local leaders say they are concerned that some of the newest residents might be here illegally. They worry that some immigrants are unable to communicate adequately in English and might be taxing local services.
But Curtis said that’s the same population that should be credited with saving some parts of rural Wisconsin.
“The population would have grown slower and we would be older had it not been for the increase in girth in our Hispanic population,” she said.
Changing farms, changing faces
Alejandro Vasquez is editor of Noticias, a Spanish-language newspaper in Abbotsford. Vasquez said workers arriving in central Wisconsin mostly are Mexicans who have migrated from other parts of the United States to work in Wisconsin’s dairy industry, where a growing number of large operations, such as Meissner’s, provide year-round work.
Clark County ranks first in the state in number of cows and dairy farms. The county’s $1.5 billion agricultural sector generates 63 percent of the business sales and provides 46 percent of its jobs, according to a 2011 UW-Extension report.
But the structure of the industry is changing. In Clark County, for example, some family farms are going away, replaced by a larger, more corporate style of farming. These businesses produce more milk with fewer farms, and they increasingly rely on immigrant labor.
Vasquez said many farm owners are older, and their children don’t want to work on the family farm.
“Who’s going to milk the cows? Who’s going to work the countryside? This is why the Hispanic community has such important role in the state of Wisconsin,” Vasquez said in his native Spanish.
Birth rates fuel growth
Data suggest young Hispanic and Amish families might be providing a counterbalance to Clark County’s aging population.
While the median age for white Wisconsinites is 40.9, among Hispanics it is 23.5. The Clark County birth rate is 16.7 per 1,000 residents “incredibly high” compared to the statewide rate of 12.5, according to the Department of Workforce Development’s 2011 profile of Clark County.
“To put it simply, Clark County has a lot of children and a lot of old people, compared to the rest of the state,” the report said.
Reed Welsh, Abbotsford School District administrator, said his district is one of the few in the area that has added students in recent years, thanks to the influx of immigrants. In 2000, just less than 7 percent of students were Hispanic; now it’s a little more than 35 percent. Enrollment has increased from 651 in 2000 to 707 in 2011, an increase of almost 9 percent.
State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, who represents parts of Clark, Marathon and Wood counties, acknowledges that Hispanic immigrants have helped the region economically, “and the people who I know are very hard working, very family oriented, very nice people.”
But, he adds, “If there are some people who are not here legally, that’s where the tension comes in. What should be done? That’s not an issue I have jurisdiction over. That becomes a question for the federal government.”
Suder believes that strategies beyond immigration, such as improving highways, spending on more enterprise zones in rural areas and keeping taxes low on farmers, can help create jobs and retain young people.
Vasquez said politicians complain about illegal immigration but have done little to solve it or the shortage of workers for the county’s dominant agricultural sector.
“This country is No. 1 in the world because of all the races,” he said. “Everyone here knows it — the whites, the blacks and the Hispanics. The only thing we want is to work, in order to live well. That’s all we want. It’s not much.”