Although California, Washington and Oregon trend heavily blue when it comes to votes, look around the landscape and you will see miles and miles of farmland and small communities that were and still are peppered with Trump-Pence signs.
The majority of West Coast voters live in cities, but drive just a little way into the country and you’ll see beautiful pastures, organic farms, even emu farms. (Yes, it really is a thing.)
California produces more than half the nation's fresh fruits and is the leading producer of fresh vegetables. California, Washington, and Oregon comprise three of the top four fruit-producing states. (The other one is Florida.) These three states generate an economy larger than the fifth largest economy in the world, and agriculture is an important contributor.
But you’ll also see a lot of run down farms, and tractors rusting into the ground. There are rural counties in the West Coast where the unemployment rate is over 17%, and one in six people are hungry. There are farmers and farmworkers who cannot afford to feed their families. In California, drought has reclaimed orchards and fields, and family farms have gone under. A once robust dairy industry has almost disappeared.
Dairymen, farmers, ranchers, loggers, fishermen—just like miners and steelworkers in the Rust Belt states—have been disenfranchised by their government. They have been disappointed and deserted over and over again by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Is it any wonder that they pin their hopes on a government outsider who threatens to shake up the marble-halled, entitled status quo?
Milking or Bilking? Boehner Accuses Broke Farmers of ‘Bilking’ Consumers
Unlike miners and steelworkers whose plants closed decades ago, the devastation wrought on the dairy industry is fairly recent, occurring in the last ten years.
For instance, in 2009 milk prices dropped to a 30 year low. The price farmers get for their milk is set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, based on commodity markets that rise and fall with global demand.
But by 2011, feed costs accounted for 80% of operating costs and 54% of the total cost of milk production. That’s before including the cost of the cows themselves, utilities, repairs, fuel, labor, veterinary care and other costs like insurance. And it certainly doesn’t include overhead costs like a mortgage, barns and property taxes.
After 60 years of inflexible, antiquated dairy regulations, falling government-set prices, and rising feed costs, a bipartisan team created the Dairy Security Act. The DSA gave farmers the choice to sell on a free market, or use a profit margin insurance system that protected them from catastrophic losses but might limit their production in order to boost demand. Farmers don’t want more government intervention and weren’t asking for a bailout, but as one dairy owner pointed out, "Cheesemakers have allowances that are adjusted to offset their costs. Dairy producers don't get that kind of an offset, making it difficult to survive."
The Act was immediately criticized by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), attacked it, calling it “soviet-style” and claiming that it would bilk consumers. The Act passed in 2011 but only lasted until 2013 when it was shot down for good by Republicans. Boehner threatened not to pass the 2014 Farm Bill at all if it included the DSA. Yet protections for cheesemakers remain in place to this day, forcing dairies to sell to cheesemakers at controlled prices.
You Know Those Protein Drinks You Like?
Recently the U.S. began importing milk protein concentrates (MPCs) from other countries, most notably India and China (which aren’t known for food hygiene). In the first three months of 2009, MPC imports had increased by 24.59%. MPCs are not approved for food use and are supposedly an ingredient in glue, but MPCs have been found in baby formula, sports drinks, yogurt, pizza and ice cream.
At the same time, California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross was quoted in a Bloomberg article as saying, “California dairies and processors must operate within national and international markets that require the manufacture of milk products to be competitive with those produced elsewhere in terms of variety, price and quality.”
She also acknowledged that the program needs to change. “Our system of regulated milk pricing is an antiquated one that impairs the ability of the dairy industry to rise to this challenge,” she said.
So essentially, the government expects—and regulates—U.S. milk prices based on ultra-cheap global prices, while importing tons of inexpensive milk solids from India and China, taking cheese and yogurt markets away from American dairies, and forcing U.S. prices even lower.
When the new Farm Bill passed in 2014 (the same bill that provides support for small organic farms) lawmakers finally acknowledged that with feed grain prices surging to three times the levels of the previous four decades, dairy farmers were in trouble. But they didn’t do anything about it.
Do Cows Really Blow Up?
Take a moment to consider that grain producers and distributors can sit on their supply and wait for prices to stabilize. Milk producers cannot. Cows must be milked twice a day. If they’re not, pressure builds up and causes extreme pain. The cows are also likely to contract mastitis, a potentially fatal infection. They may not blow up, but they will die. Milking must go on, and because milk is perishable, it must be sold and moved out quickly, no matter what the price, no matter how pitiful the profit margin.
Meanwhile, family-owned dairies are folding at an unprecedented rate.
Talk About a Crappy Job
The dairies that are surviving rely on technology to grow their herds and production, and are turning to undocumented workers to keep labor costs down.
Today, working with dairy cows is one of the most dangerous jobs there is, and dairy workers are not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Itinerant dairy workers often work 10-12 hour shifts with no overtime pay and no breaks, eating their meals with unwashed, manure-smeared hands. Twice a day they handle hundreds of large animals the size and weight of a small vehicle. They are stomped on, kicked, smashed against walls and fences, and gored. Undocs are willing to accept the risks and low pay while waiting for their citizenship documents to arrive, which can take six months to several years.
Washington, Oregon and California all volunteered to impose tougher OSHA standards and more state inspections than federally required, but resources are limited and inspectors can visit only a fraction of the dairy producers in each state. In 2008, federal and state labor inspectors in the West inspected only 42 of the region's approximately 4,150 dairies.
A House Divided
The dairy industry is just one example of the ways that government has ignored the needs of people working in rural communities, agriculture and natural resources.
Farmers generally embrace conservative values and limited government. Liberal values represent, to the Red Rebellion, the same governmental uber-control and oversight that is oppressing them, collecting taxes on their land and livestock, and not giving anything back to rural communities and industries.
Ironically, they often share some of the same goals and dreams as their more blue-blooded urban neighbors: improved infrastructure, fair wages and better working conditions, sustainable market conditions for American businesses, affordable health care, more say in education, a better future for their children.
Red-leaning voters might do well to recall the Biblical warning, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand,” and remember that their more liberal and Democrat friends often fight for the same things.
Can blue voters come to understand their red neighbors? Of course. And doing so will make us all stronger as communities, as towns and cities, and as states. Instead of lobbing insult bombs on social media, talk to the farmers at your local market. Learn about their concerns and challenges. Join a local gleaning organization and help harvest food for the hunger kitchens and safe shelters in your area. Instead of donating to political campaigns and to foundations that support the starving in Zimbabwe, attend a Farm Aid concert or devote your dollars to local conservation.