Rural Wisconsin is divided, but still leans toward Trump

Through the dairy farm crisis, trade wars and pandemic, farmers stay the course

A Trump sign on the side of the road in Buffalo County (photo by Ruth Conniff)
A Trump sign on the side of the road in Buffalo County (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Driving through the rolling green hills of Western Wisconsin, you’ll see many giant Trump 2020 banners waving over golden fields of corn. Occasionally, a Biden sign propped against the side of a barn competes with the Trump-supporting neighbors across the road. But an informal survey on a recent weekend drive shows the Trump banners appear to outnumber the Biden signs about 2-to-1.

This area in Buffalo, Trempealeau and Pepin counties, has been hit hard by the dairy farm crisis. Several years of depressed milk prices helped make Wisconsin the No. 1 state for farm bankruptcies in 2019. Over the last decade, the state has lost about 40% of its dairy farms.

People have been forced to sell land that had been in the family for generations. The topic of farmer depression and suicide was a major political issue in the state Capitol last year.

Trade wars, retaliatory tariffs and ICE raids in a region where dairy farmers lean heavily on Mexican laborers have only contributed to the general feeling of instability and unease. Still, the latest Marquette University Law School poll, released on Wednesday, shows that Donald Trump maintains a 7 point edge in rural Wisconsin, even as Joe Biden leads in the state by 49% to Trump’s 44%.

A Biden sign in Buffalo County (photo by Ruth Conniff)
A Biden sign in Buffalo County (photo by Ruth Conniff)

“Regional support for each candidate has been relatively stable between June and August,” the Marquette poll found. Biden is ahead in Milwaukee and Madison, where Clinton won in 2016. Trump is ahead in Milwaukee’s white-flight suburbs, which generally lean to the right. The race is very tight in the areas around Green Bay and Appleton. In the area labeled “rest of the state,” in the Marquette poll, which includes rural western and northern Wisconsin, Trump was down slightly earlier in the summer, but regained his lead in August, with 49% to Biden’s 42%.

Trump won rural voters by a whopping 27 points in 2016, turning traditionally Democratic counties red all along the Mississippi River on the Western edge of the state. 

The rural Wisconsin voters who chose Trump in 2016 do not appear to be preparing to rise up and vote him out of office this year.

‘All the money they’re shoveling our way’

If the crises of the last several years, compounded last spring by the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of schools and restaurants — bulk buyers of dairy products — might have propelled some dairy farmers to revolt, in recent months things have changed. Milk prices have recovered from the hit they took at the beginning of the pandemic, and a major infusion of cash from the federal government is bringing an unexpectedly good end of the year on Wisconsin dairy farms.

“It’s just amazing. They just felt really sorry for us, which is really good,” says John Rosenow, a dairy farmer in Cochrane, in Buffalo County. He reels off a long list of the different kinds of support that became available to farmers:

“We got the PPP money, and SBA had a loan program; we got that. The state had a couple of programs, we got all we could out of that. And then USDA had a really big program based on how far the price of milk had dropped, and we got a big check out of that. We participated in the government programs that were always there anyway. And there was an insurance program that we bought last year, and we collected on that, too.”

The upshot, he says, is that “we’re gonna have a fantastic financial year,  because of all the money they’re shoveling our way.”

None of that changes the underlying problems that created the dairy farm crisis in the first place, including massive industry consolidation, oversupply, and dizzyingly volatile prices. “I don’t know what happens next year when at some time you would think the money would run out,” Rosenow says.

John Rosenow with his Biden and James Baldwin signs (photo by Ruth Conniff).
John Rosenow with his Biden and James Baldwin signs (photo by Ruth Conniff).

Rosenow has a huge Biden sign in his yard, next to a giant placard with a quote from James Baldwin. He speaks admiringly of his Mexican workers, and takes umbrage at the insults Trump has hurled at Mexicans. He hopes that if Biden is elected, his workers will have a path to citizenship and the dignity they deserve. Some of his neighbors share his politics. Most are more conservative. He’s good friends with people he disagrees with. And in general, he doesn’t think his Republican neighbors are likely to change their minds about Trump no matter how bad things get.

He recalls two winters ago, when a series of huge snow storms caused barn roofs to collapse all over the region. “The price of milk was really bad. And It was colder than crap for a long, long time. Just a horrible winter.” A neighbor of his with a small herd of about 80 cows had to take all his cows out of the barn after the machine he used to clean out the manure broke down. “He didn’t have the money to fix it,” Rosenow says. 

“It was so viciously cold and there was all that snow and the roofs were caving in and the cows were having major problems. Eventually, he had to sell the cows and quit milking, which that family had done for four generations,” Rosenow says. Despite all that bad luck and no policy changes that might have helped from the government,  “through that whole process, he is a die-hard Trump supporter.” 

Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue actually came to Wisconsin during that period and said small family farms that were going out of business might just have to die — “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out”

‘I don’t know if anything made any difference’

“So I don’t know if anything that has happened has made any difference at all,” Rosenow adds. “I’m not sure.”

Some of the reasons Rosenow’s Republican neighbors cite for supporting Trump include the sense that he is good for the economy, that he was against NAFTA and is negotiating better trade deals and that he stood up to China, which they expect will benefit U.S. agriculture in the long run. Some also mention law and order, their worries about the destruction in cities during recent protests of police violence, and the idea that Biden is beholden to the “radical left.”  

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No one mentions government checks as a motivator — a sore point for farmers generally, who have long argued that they would rather sell their product at a decent price than rely on the government to bail them out. But they acknowledge that the money helped, and that they both need and deserve it.

“We did see a little bit of improvement,” in aid to farmers, says Rosenow’s neighbor Janet Thewis. “Usually you get $2,000 to keep your mouth shut. This year we weren’t insulted by the amount they were willing to help with.“

Not a politician

But “one of the biggest reasons” Thewis and her husband are voting for Trump, she says, is “he’s not necessarily a politician.”

“He does understand the business side and that does drive his decisions,” Thewis adds, “like on China. That was a long time coming and it needed to happen. Even though there’s no positive change immediately.”

Thewis and her husband have been farming since 1991 and have never turned a profit, she says. She works off the farm as a registered nurse, “mostly for the health insurance.”

“What it costs to keep the farm going is so expensive compared to what the income is,” she says.

As for politics, “We’re kind of the low man on the totem pole. There are more pressing issues.” No matter who wins, she says, “I don’t know if it makes much difference.” 

Obama/Trump voters

Roger Sendlebach owns Sendlebach Construction in Cochrane and does a lot of work for farmers in the area, including Rosenow, whom he counts as a friend, despite their political differences.

Like a lot of voters in his county, Sendlebach voted for Barack Obama in 2008, before switching to Trump in 2016. “I thought he’d do better for the country than what he did,” he says of Obama. He liked Obama’s charisma, and thought he would be a bigger opponent of global trade deals. Like Trump, Obama seemed like an outsider coming in to fix a corrupt system. But the economy, Obamacare, and conflicts with police turned Sendlebach off. He says he favors “law and order,” and has confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the economy.

“The economy was rockin’ and rollin’ before this COVID hit,” he says. “I think they handled it as well as they could. I don’t know what he could have done differently.”

He concedes that “the economy is not good around here now,” but adds, “I think things will get better.”

Dick Krakow, a realtor and auctioneer in Arcadia, has also seen the economic fallout from COVID in his community. Interrupted while feeding his sheep on some land he owns and rents out for income, he says, “A lot of my friends are farmers. I feel for those guys. It’s really tough. And the milk situation is really hard.” He sees “extortion and corruption on both sides of the aisle.” But he says he likes how Trump stood up to China and he doesn’t like Democrats’ views on police. This year, he says, he is voting Republican “straight down the chute.”

More divided than ever

Nora Lindstrom on her farm (photo by Ruth Conniff)
Nora Lindstrom on her farm (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Down the road, in Nelson, Nora Lindstrom says she has been feeling relieved since she switched from dealing with the business side of the operation to raising heifers. She and her family had to sell off land a couple of years ago, and they decided to raise their own heifers and sell some for income. Since things have started looking up she is recovering from the overwhelming stress. 

Things have also gotten considerably better recently thanks to the PPP loan her farm qualified for and the milk price recovery. “Without a lot of those programs that came, I think a lot of farms would have went under,” she says. “So that helped make this year a good year. Right. And then, looking ahead, it’s hard to say.”

Lindstrom tries to tune out national politics. 

Some of Lindstrom's neighbor's signs (photo by Ruth Conniff)
Some of Lindstrom’s Democratic neighbor’s signs (photo by Ruth Conniff)

“I don’t know, maybe I’m blind to it, but I feel like since March, I pretty much close myself off from the world, like watching the news — it’s just too depressing,” she says.

“I have not voted in years and years and years. It’s just really stupid and sad, I know. But I don’t know. I’m kind of just sick of all the political bullcrap,” she adds.

Lindstrom’s parents are apolitical, too, she says. Her brother, who works with her on the farm, is a big Trump supporter.

Nora Lindstrom's Democratic neighbor's signs (photo by Ruth Conniff)
More of Lindstrom’s Democratic neighbor’s signs (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Lindstrom has two neighbors with dueling yard signs. One of them, a schoolteacher, put up a Black Lives Matter sign and several anti-Trump signs in his yard, and that aggravated her, she says (he’s also been vocal about opposing her big irrigation machines and the helicopters that spray pesticides on her potato fields). So she encouraged her other neighbor to move a Trump banner closer to the road.

Still, she says, she doesn’t like all the division in the country. “I mean, it’s scary. It’s just insanely scary. I even have friends that are like, so pro-Trump that they’re so annoying, and it’s like, I don’t know. I don’t not like Trump but, holy cow, you’re just — I’m not not liking what’s coming out. It’s just too much.”

Lindstrom's Republican neighbors' sign (photo by Ruth Conniff)
Lindstrom’s Republican neighbors’ sign (photo by Ruth Conniff)

She also speaks warmly of her Mexican employees who work side by side with her on the farm, and she doesn’t like Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. But, she says, “people want to stop criminals from crossing the border. They aren’t criminals,” and, she says of Trump, “he knows they need to be here.”

Asked why she thinks a lot of farmers are voting for Trump, she says a dairy science professor posed the same question recently online. 

“It was a very civil conversation, which, usually, on social media it’s not. But what I got from it was everybody’s kind of feeling the same way they did, you know, four years ago.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.