Last October, Jerry Volenec, a dairy farmer from southwestern Wisconsin, took the morning off to go to Madison for the World Dairy Expo, an annual cattle-judging contest and trade show. Volenec wanted to hear a town-hall discussion led by Sonny Perdue, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, to learn how the Administration planned to address the economic crisis gripping Wisconsin’s family dairy farmers.
Volenec’s farm sits atop Bohemian Ridge, a jagged plateau named for the Czech immigrants who settled there in the late nineteenth century. Among them was Joseph Volenec, Jerry’s great-great-grandfather, who established the farm, in 1897. In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, Volenec’s grandfather milked a herd of sixteen cows; he could make a living because New Deal policies used price supports and other measures to boost farmers’ earnings and limit overproduction.
Jerry Volenec always wanted to become a farmer. “You couldn’t keep me out of the barn,” he said. “I was milking cows by myself by the time I was fourteen.” By the early nineties, when Volenec began farming full time, the New Deal policies had largely been dismantled. The family increased its herd to about seventy, and Volenec’s father started paying him a salary, enough money for his education at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and to start an I.R.A. In 2000, Volenec installed a milking parlor, and since then he has increased the herd to three hundred and thirty cows. “We’re the biggest of the small guys,” Volenec, who is forty-five, with a sturdy build and a thin goatee, said. “But I was making more money, doing less work, when I started, twenty-five years ago. I’m basically paying myself living expenses now.”
Five years ago, the price of milk fell precipitously, accelerating the long unravelling of rural Wisconsin. Since 2010, the population in two-thirds of the state’s rural counties has decreased, leading to a shrinking workforce, fewer jobs and businesses, and slower income growth rates than in metro counties. More than seventy rural schools have closed, and for the past three years the state has led the country in family-farm bankruptcies. “The level of desperation and lack of hope in our phone calls has increased,” Angie Sullivan, who supervises caseworkers at the Wisconsin Farm Center, part of the state’s Department of Agriculture, said. “Dairy farmers are working on their fifth year of low milk prices. Many banks have stopped loaning them money.” Wisconsin has seven thousand dairy farms, roughly half the number that it had a decade ago. Yet the number of cows has remained constant, because of consolidation and the proliferation of factory dairy farms, some of which have herds of more than five thousand cows.
“It’s like a never-ending cycle, almost like a hamster on the wheel,” Travis Tranel, a Republican state representative from Cuba City, forty miles south of Volenec’s farm, told me. Tranel is an organic dairy farmer with a five-hundred-cow herd. “You just keep running and running. Your only option is to produce more.” Tranel said that consolidation has all but wiped out small dairy farms in Wisconsin and now threatens medium-sized farms such as his. “We can see the future if we stay on the path we’re on,” he said, noting that the consolidation of hog farming had already transformed Iowa. “I definitely do not want to see rural Wisconsin become as empty as rural Iowa.”
After the town hall, Perdue took questions from reporters, one of whom asked if the state’s loss of small farms was inevitable. “In America, the big get bigger, and the small will go out,” Perdue said. “I don’t think in America for any small business we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” Volenec wasn’t surprised by Perdue’s answer. “I walked in there knowing that’s how they felt,” Volenec told me, referring to the Trump Administration. “The part that was unnerving to me was that he said it to our faces. They’re not trying to hide it anymore. They’re telling us flat out: You’re not important.”
In 2016, after voting for Barack Obama twice, Volenec voted for Trump. Volenec had grown disenchanted with Obama after his Administration banned whole milk from schools and did little to slow the loss of family farms. “I wasn’t following politics closely,” he said. “I never listened to Trump give a speech, just commentary over the radio. I had the general impression that what’s wrong with the agricultural economy was that too many politicians were involved, and that having a businessman in the White House would benefit me.”
As rural Wisconsin’s fortunes have declined, its political importance has grown. Trump won the state by less than twenty-three thousand votes. If the 2020 election is close, Trump could lose Michigan and Pennsylvania—the other Rust Belt states he flipped in 2016—and still win a second term by holding Wisconsin. Trump underperformed in the suburban counties of Milwaukee, the Republican Party’s stronghold, while overperforming in the state’s rural areas, where he won nearly two-thirds of the vote. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that the largest shift in voting between Obama’s seven-point victory in Wisconsin, in 2012, and Trump’s one-point win came in communities that cast fewer than a thousand votes. (Nationally, Trump won sixty-two per cent of the rural vote.)
Four years ago, Trump promised to reverse the economic decline of family farmers. “Hillary Clinton wants to shut down family farms just like she wants to shut down the mines and the steelworkers,” he said, during a campaign stop at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. “We are going to end this war on the American farmer.” In early 2018, he launched a series of trade wars, which provoked China, Mexico, Canada, and the European Union into imposing penalties on American dairy products. Mexico, the largest importer of Wisconsin cheese, levied a twenty-five-per-cent tariff on American cheeses. Last summer, Trump allotted fifteen billion dollars in compensation to farmers, but the vast majority of it has gone to the largest farms. In a tweet, he called farmers “great patriots” and promised that they would eventually be better off.
In June, as Trump’s poll numbers dropped nationwide, the Washington Post reported that his campaign advisers were losing hope for Michigan and Pennsylvania, and would focus on holding Wisconsin. “It’s baked into the cake that Trump will lose the state’s large metro areas in a landslide, while the suburbs have been fleeing him,” Ben Wikler, the head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told me. “Trump can’t win a second term unless he racks up enormous margins in rural Wisconsin.”
For Volenec, Trump’s appeal vanished almost immediately. “If I had known the things I know about him now, I wouldn’t have voted for him,” he said, when I visited him at his farm in February. As Trump’s trade wars escalated, Volenec’s problems worsened. In March, 2018, Canada effectively cut off all dairy imports from the United States, and milk from Michigan that had previously been exported began flooding into Wisconsin’s processing plants. The co-op where Volenec sent his milk for processing was now competing with cheap out-of-state milk, and put a cap on the amount that it would take from him. That week, Volenec heard about a meeting of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a family-farm advocacy group, in nearby Dodgeville, to promote a version of supply management, a system used in Canada that sets a quota on the production of dairy, eggs, and poultry. Designed, like the New Deal policies, to prevent overproduction and to guarantee farmers a stable income, the system relies on higher prices for Canadian consumers. Trump’s trade war with Canada is aimed at dismantling supply management, which has long been deplored by Republican politicians. John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, called it “Soviet-style” agriculture. For Volenec, it was a revelation. “This was my first glimpse into a world where the dairy farmer is not subservient to The Market,” he wrote in an essay called “Groomed for Apocalypse.”
Volenec lives on the farm with his wife, Jennifer, and their four daughters. His parents still live and work there, too, and the family employs four farmhands, Mexican immigrants who milk the cows three times a day, in five-hour shifts. Volenec spends most of his time feeding cattle and doing maintenance. His workday begins at five in the morning and, in the spring and summer, ends at nine or ten at night. It was bitterly cold the day I visited, so Volenec led me into a small office adjacent to the milking parlor. On the wall was a whiteboard with numbers detailing the farm’s milk production, which averages roughly thirty thousand pounds a day. A truck picks up the milk every day and takes it to the co-op, where it is turned into cheese. (Ninety per cent of Wisconsin’s milk is used to make cheese; if the state were a country, it would be the fourth-largest cheese-producing nation in the world.)
Dairy farmers have felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic acutely. As schools and restaurants closed, they abruptly cancelled their contracts with milk bottlers and cheese factories. The price of milk dropped by more than thirty per cent, and some processors began asking their farmers to dump milk. By late April, as hungry people lined up at food banks, one farm had already dumped more than five million pounds of milk, according to “The Mid-West Farm Report.” Mitch Breunig, a dairy farmer in Sauk City, had to dump all of his morning milking for ten days. “We took a hundred-and-fifty-foot hose and ran it from the milking parlor right into the manure-storage unit in the barn,” he told me. Breunig wound up dumping eighty thousand pounds of milk, for which he received no money. “I would just look at it and think, Wow, everything we did was for nothing.”
State agencies issued protocols for dumping milk, which can pollute groundwater and decimate fish populations. Though Volenec has not had to dump any of his milk, he’s been worrying about the environmental costs of large-scale dairy farming, from water contamination to climate change. Manure runoff from industrial dairy farming has contributed to a dramatic increase in bacteria and nitrates in the state’s groundwater, according to a study funded in part by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. (A farm with twenty-five hundred cows produces as much waste as a city of four hundred thousand people.) The E.P.A. recently sampled the groundwater in a thirty-mile area of Juneau County that’s dense with dairy cows and found that sixty-five per cent of the sites had elevated levels of nitrates, which have been linked to birth defects, colon cancer, and “blue-baby syndrome,” a condition that reduces oxygen in an infant’s blood and can be fatal.
“You’re now looking at three or four generations of depletion,” Curt Meine, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me. “Depletion of rural communities, rural landscapes, rural soils and water, depletion of the land and local economies. And you have the brain drain that followed it. This is why we have this deep urban-rural divide. We have concentrated and exported the wealth. Everyone sees it, but neither party has wrestled with it. One party exploited it, the other party has ignored it.”
“It’s hard, because I’ve built my life around a system that I believe now is extremely problematic from an environmental, social, even a personal level,” Volenec said. “It’s not the farming that I was brought up with. It’s not really even farming anymore. It’s mining. We’re extracting resources and shipping them away, and they’re not coming back. There’s no cyclical nature to it. It’s a straight line out.”
Volenec and I walked across the road to see his great-great-grandfather’s homestead. The land begins behind his house. Rolling fields stretched to the horizon, punctuated by cornstalks and a few trees. Volenec told me that he will be the family’s last farmer. “I don’t want my kids doing what I’m doing,” he said. He gazed at the snow-covered plot. “The flip side for me is: Is what I’ve done worth anything?”
Volenec’s farm is in the Driftless Area, a vast region of hills and valleys in southern and western Wisconsin whose agricultural and political histories are deeply entwined. The Driftless Area, with its steep coulees and sandstone bluffs, is a geological anomaly in the Midwest. (It also encompasses smaller portions of Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois.) As rural America trended Republican, it remained one of the few rural regions that still tended to vote Democratic. The Driftless Area was where Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, worked on soil- and watershed-restoration projects. In 1945, when Wisconsin had about a hundred and fifty thousand dairy farms, Leopold wrote an essay called “The Outlook for Farm Wildlife,” which warned of the dangers of industrialized agriculture for soil, animals, and rural communities. Leopold saw two possibilities for American agriculture: the farm as a “place-to-live,” where wildlife could be accommodated, or the farm as a “food-factory,” whose only goal is to produce sellable goods. The latter, he believed, generated “new insecurities, economic and ecological, in place of those it was meant to abolish.”
After the Second World War, American agriculture moved toward Leopold’s darker possibility. Companies such as Dow Chemical and DuPont began repurposing wartime technology and materials for agricultural uses. Nitrogen, an essential element in TNT and other explosives, was used to make fertilizers that can vastly improve yields. Such fertilizers soon became widespread, leading to the Green Revolution, which brought an enormous increase in agricultural production in the developing world. It helped reduce hunger, but also diminished biodiversity and left lasting environmental damage—depleting the soil, increasing greenhouse-gas emissions, and contaminating water supplies. In the U.S., synthetic fertilizers were essential to what’s known as the “cheap food policy,” in which the U.S.D.A. pursues ever-higher yields to keep food prices low for consumers, at the expense of farmers’ wages and the environment.
Decades before Sonny Perdue, Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon, urged American farmers to “get big or get out.” Butz called farming “a big business,” and told farm audiences that they needed to “adapt or die.” In the summer of 1972, after experiencing crop failure, the Soviet Union bought eleven million tons of American grain. The sale wiped out American grain reserves, helped create a worldwide food shortage, and contributed to a rise in global food prices of more than thirty per cent. Butz implored farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” promising them limitless exports. New Deal policies had encouraged soil-conservation measures, but Butz’s export-driven focus led to monoculture farming, which transformed much of the rural Midwest into endless fields of corn and soybeans. Agricultural exports became an instrument of foreign policy. “Food is a weapon,” Butz told Time in 1974, as a wave of famines spread around the world. “It is now one of the principal tools in our negotiating kit.”
In the early eighties, however, a grain embargo against the Soviet Union, a strong dollar, and a global economic recession caused exports to dry up. Many farmers, who had borrowed heavily to expand, were foreclosed on. The signing of NAFTA, in 1993, by Bill Clinton, promised a revival of exports but ended up hurting family farmers, encouraging consolidation with large agribusiness companies that, like their counterparts in the auto industry, started moving production to Mexico. Since NAFTA’s passage, more than two hundred thousand small farms in the U.S. have gone under, and an agricultural trading surplus with Canada and Mexico has become a twelve-billion-dollar deficit.
Because the topography of the Driftless Area made large corporate farms less tenable, the region has until recently resisted many of these trends. It has one of the highest concentrations of organic farms in the country, an enduring culture of local coöperatives established by Scandinavian immigrants, and a tradition of economic populism. The partisan tilt of the Driftless Area is a major reason that Wisconsin, prior to Trump, had not voted for a Republican for President since 1984. In 2008, Obama won Wisconsin by fourteen points and carried all the Driftless Area’s twenty-two counties.
Since the financial crash of 2008, however, the region’s economic decline has accelerated, driving political changes that may determine the next President. In 2010, Scott Walker, a Republican, won his first term as governor, capturing almost all the Driftless Area. Before his inauguration, he began appealing to—and stoking—resentment. “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” he said. Then, in February, 2011, he announced a law that gutted collective-bargaining rights for public employees and reduced their health-insurance and pension benefits. The law, which became known as Act 10, led to protests at the state capitol that at times drew a hundred thousand people.
Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spent eight years interviewing rural Wisconsinites for her book “The Politics of Resentment,” published months before Trump’s election. “I heard so many complaints about teachers,” she told me. “ ‘How is it that they can get off of work? People who really work hard don’t have time to go out and protest.’ ” Act 10 prompted a recall petition, which gathered more than a million signatures, but Walker won the recall election, nearly sweeping the Driftless Area. He was reëlected two years later, with strong support from the region. In 2012, Walker announced a plan to increase Wisconsin’s milk production to thirty billion pounds a year by 2020. The goal was met four years early, but the increase contributed to a collapse in prices and the further consolidation of dairy farming.
Compounding the economic anxiety, a month before the 2016 Presidential election, Wisconsinites learned that their Obamacare rates would increase by an average of sixteen per cent. Rural residents were hit particularly hard, because they are less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance. Trump seized on the underlying discontent, staging five large rallies in Wisconsin during the campaign, one of them in Eau Claire, which borders the Driftless Area. Two days before Election Day, he held a rally in Minneapolis, whose television market covers a large swath of western Wisconsin.
Hillary Clinton was the first candidate of either party not to campaign in Wisconsin since Richard Nixon in 1972. But Clinton’s negligence was not the only advantage Trump enjoyed. In 2011, Walker had signed one of the strictest voter-I.D. laws in the country, which was blocked by the courts until shortly before the 2016 election. A survey conducted by political scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimated that, of people in two of the state’s largest and most heavily Democratic counties who were eligible to vote but didn’t, ten per cent had been deterred by the law. Trump also benefitted from the growth and reach of right-wing media. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that, by 2016, Wisconsin was being blanketed by conservative talk radio, averaging nearly two hundred hours a day statewide. At the same time, traditional reporting is dying. In 2000, there were twenty-one full-time reporters covering state politics. Today, there are five.
Trump won almost all the counties in the Driftless Area, but the 2018 midterms proved that Wisconsin was not yet a one-party state. Tony Evers, the state’s superintendent of schools, defeated Walker by twenty-nine thousand votes, and Democrats won every statewide office. Evers’s victory was driven by high turnout in Milwaukee and Madison, but also by better results in rural Wisconsin, including in the Driftless Area, where he won nearly half the counties. Evers, who grew up in Plymouth, a small town an hour north of Milwaukee whose motto is “Cheese capital of the world,” campaigned heavily in farm country. “People in rural Wisconsin care about schools, health care, and good roads as much as anybody else,” Evers told me. “Wisconsin is the linchpin for both parties. If a candidate can make inroads in rural Wisconsin, they will definitely win.”
The Statz Family Farm is on the western edge of the Baraboo Hills, a dramatic outcrop that straddles the border of the Driftless Area. In 1972, when Leon Statz was twelve years old, he moved there with his parents and seven siblings after their old farm, on Madison’s west side, was swallowed up by a shopping center. The new farm sat on two hundred acres, with a white farmhouse and a stanchion barn for sixty cows. During high school, Leon apprenticed with a farmer down the road. After graduating, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s “short course,” a four-month agricultural-training program that has been offered since 1886.
In the early eighties, Leon married Brenda Farber, and they had three children. After the middle child was born, Brenda quit her assembly-line job in nearby Reedsburg so that she could bring up the children and help on the farm. Although they worked constantly, they had little money, and Leon fell into a depression. Brenda recalls him saying, “If I fail, I’m responsible for everybody, and everybody fails.”
Despite the economic hardship, Brenda remembers those years as a joyful time. “I loved raising my kids on the farm, because you get to be with your kids,” she told me as we sat at her dining-room table. Brenda, who is fifty-seven, has long beige-blond hair, glasses, and a soft smile. “We put swings in the barn so they could be near me when I milked,” she said. “They get to learn so much—my kids have seen calves being born. When my boys were little, we would put pillows in the tractor, and they’d sleep in the tractor while I was plowing. We’d pack a lunch and eat out in the field.”
In 2000, milk prices fell to a new low, and Brenda, like many people in the area, found a job at the clothing retailer Lands’ End, packing orders. She woke up at four, milked the cows, and then milked them again when she returned from work. Leon milked, fed the cattle, and ran the silos. The children helped, too, when they were old enough. Most of the neighbors were going under. “From here to Reedsburg, there were probably thirty small dairy farms like ours,” Brenda told me. “There are two of those still operating.”
After Scott Walker was elected, Leon grew more vocal about politics. “He thought Walker was owned by big money,” Brenda said. “He would get irate about everything they were cutting that was for a farmer.” When Walker introduced Act 10, Leon joined protests at the state capitol. The law led to teacher pay cuts of about ten per cent, making recruitment more difficult for rural areas. Walker’s cuts to state aid for local governments disproportionately hurt rural communities, which typically have smaller tax bases. At the same time, Walker’s agricultural policy favored large farms: for example, much of a tax cut for manufacturers and farmers, passed in 2011, and which has already cost the state more than a billion dollars, went to businesses making more than a million dollars a year. Walker also pushed a law to allow foreign corporations to buy more Wisconsin farmland. (The effort failed.)
In December, 2017, Brenda had a knee replacement. With Brenda unable to milk for several weeks and prices in free fall, the Statzes decided to sell their dairy cows and switch to beef, corn, and soybeans. Leon took a job as a meat cutter at a nearby Piggly Wiggly but hated it. Several weeks later, he took dozens of antidepressants and drank five beers. He left a note for Brenda: “Wish I never sold my (our) cows. I’m a dairy farmer. I miss going to the barn and seeing cows in there. Now I hate going to the barn. I hate living around the farm. I hate working for someone else. I want my old life back, but I can’t get it any more. Everything I do fails. I didn’t plan ahead for this, I thought everything would be fine. I wish I could turn the clock back and start over. I really screwed up. I have everything that’s worth nothing. Sorry, good luck, Leon.”
Brenda found Leon semiconscious, and her pastor helped persuade him to go to a hospital in Madison. He went to psychiatrists and tried different medications, but, a few months later, Ethan, his youngest child, found him in an outbuilding, tying a noose. Leon underwent eight rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. Brenda recalls him crying on the return trip from the hospital in Madison. “I want to feel better and I can’t,” he told her.
One weekend in October, 2018, a neighbor’s land came up for sale. Leon had always dreamed of buying it for his sons, who wanted to farm. All weekend, he studied whether they could afford it, but it was impossible. “He got real quiet,” Brenda said. That Sunday, she asked Leon to help her deliver some tables and chairs for their grandson’s first-birthday party, but he declined. “I came back early and he was already in bed, and it wasn’t that late,” Brenda recalled. “He had a really hard time sleeping. He told me he wanted to talk that night, but I didn’t ever want to wake him once he was asleep.” Tears began pouring down her face. “Oh, I wished I would have woke him up.”
The next morning, as Brenda was getting ready for work, Ethan found Leon hanging from a noose in the shed. Brenda showed me a message he had written to her on a breeding card that she found in his wallet. “I love you,” it read. “I’m concerned about your health. I’m concerned about not getting a job. I’m working where I can.”
Brenda bought the neighbor’s land with money from Leon’s life-insurance policy. We walked to the edge of the property, which includes the shell of an old house that she hopes to tear down. Though friends had tried to dissuade her from buying the land, she never doubted her decision. “It’s what he wanted,” she said. “Now I got to figure out how to make this work.”
On a Saturday morning in February, farmers and their supporters packed the cafeteria of Baraboo High School for a “farmer appreciation breakfast.” Two dollars bought a plate of pancakes, scrambled eggs, and sausage served by high schoolers from the local chapter of Future Farmers of America. The breakfast was a benefit for the Farmer Angel Network, a support group founded by Randy Roecker, a dairy farmer from nearby Loganville, who was a friend of Leon Statz. As in many rural areas, suicides in Wisconsin have increased dramatically in recent years, reaching a record of nine hundred and eighteen in 2017. Roecker has had his own battles with depression. The problems started during the 2008 recession, shortly after he borrowed three million dollars to expand his family’s fifty-cow barn into a three-hundred-cow operation with a state-of-the-art milking parlor. “I’m losing thirty thousand dollars a month, and this has been going on for years,” Roecker said. To pay the banks, he keeps borrowing more, drawing on equity from his farm.
“I wanted to die every day,” he recalled. “My family really watched me close. They took all the guns out of the house, of course, but I would get in the truck and take off, and I’d go and drive into the back of our fields. I was numb, numb to everything. I would get panic attacks so bad that I couldn’t even go into a Walmart. I’d just sit out in the parking lot feeling sick.” Roecker went to see many psychiatrists, was hospitalized several times, and received electroconvulsive therapy. “Nobody could help me, nobody,” he said. “Finally, I had this vision in my head of my own funeral, and my family standing there, and that’s what kind of snapped me out of it. I couldn’t put my family through it.” Though Roecker no longer feels suicidal, he still struggles with depression.
Roecker describes himself as a “liberal conservative”—in 2008, he voted for Obama—and believes that Canadian-style supply management should be adopted in the United States. “We have a broken system,” he said. “It’s been that way since Earl Butz. But these bigger farms that I know don’t want supply management. They say it’s not the American way—free trade, free enterprise, that’s the American way.”
In 2008, Roecker participated in a trade mission to China for the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and he is keenly aware of the damage that Trump’s tariffs have done to markets that took years to cultivate. Still, he views Trump as transformative. “I don’t agree with everything he says,” Roecker said. “But he’s the only President who has ever tackled the trade issue.” He believes that Trump’s bellicose negotiating style will eventually lead to better terms for American farmers. Roecker cited the recently renegotiated NAFTA treaty, which includes a small increase in American dairy exports allowed into Canada. “Everybody else has kicked the can down the road for decades,” Roecker said.
In January, Roecker’s state representative offered him two tickets to a Trump rally in Milwaukee. “I was sitting in the second row behind the President,” Roecker said. “It was unreal. I felt more inspired than I ever have in my life. I’m not a big patriotic, flag-waving person, but I felt very patriotic going to that. My son, too. He’s twenty, and he kept saying, ‘Oh, my God, Dad. Oh, my God.’ ”
Roecker introduced me to his family, who were sitting around a cafeteria table. His mother, father, daughter, and son-in-law all work on the farm. His parents, both in their eighties, still wake up at three-thirty every morning and work until eight at night. All of them support Trump. “He talks to us like a builder is talking to his workers,” Roecker said. “I don’t know what it is—I’m not brainwashed—but this is how we feel. We feel like he is more in touch. I know what my wages are. We live below the poverty level over here. Most of the farmers I know, we’re on free health care, and a lot of farmers I know are on food stamps.” He looked around the table at his family. “It’s all Trump supporters around here.”
Conservatives have won just one of nine statewide races in Wisconsin since Trump became President. The most surprising defeat came in April, in a State Supreme Court race that turned into a national scandal. Shortly before Election Day, Governor Evers called for postponing it, owing to the coronavirus pandemic. He also asked a federal judge to extend the deadline for requesting and returning absentee ballots. Republicans sued him in the State Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority. The justices, all of whom had voted absentee, ruled that the election must go forward. In a separate last-minute ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, 5–4, that Evers could not extend the deadline for absentee ballots, even though thousands of voters had not yet received them because of delays in the U.S. mail and the flood of requests sparked by the virus. The biggest voting problems were in Milwaukee, which had just five polling places open, out of a hundred and eighty. Thousands of voters stood in hours-long lines or were turned away when polls closed. But Jill Karofsky, a liberal circuit-court judge, took fifty-five per cent of the vote, winning almost all the Driftless Area counties.
Contact tracing by Wisconsin health officials has linked seventy-one cases of COVID-19 to in-person voting. Bill Hogseth, the chairman of the Dunn County Democratic Party, worried that he would be one of them. Hogseth had worked the polls on Election Day behind a plexiglass barrier wearing a surgical mask, safety glasses, and nitrile gloves. After the election, he self-isolated for fourteen days. Despite Joe Biden’s decisive win in the Democratic primary over Bernie Sanders, Hogseth is concerned about the lack of enthusiasm for Biden. “There’s a deep desire for structural change,” he said. “Biden’s running on a return to normalcy.” Hogseth, a Sanders supporter, noted the high number of suicides in rural Wisconsin and the empty barns he drives by. In 2016, Trump won Dunn County, which had twice gone for Obama. “The virus is laying bare just how fragile these rural communities are,” Hogseth said. “We have nine thousand people who are sixty or older, and we have zero I.C.U. beds.”
Like Hogseth, Josh Orton, a Wisconsin native and a senior Sanders campaign adviser, sees parallels between the policy records of Biden and Hillary Clinton. Orton noted that Clinton’s Wisconsin campaign had relied almost exclusively on appealing to anti-Trump sentiment. “I saw one positive Hillary ad that the campaign itself did, and it was a feel-good Katy Perry music video,” Orton said. “Every other ad was, like, ‘Trump is scary.’ ” In the end, Clinton received two hundred and thirty thousand fewer votes than Barack Obama had four years earlier. (Trump received several thousand fewer votes than Mitt Romney had.) “While the Supreme Court result is encouraging, I’m still concerned about November,” Orton said. “Joe Biden needs to give voters a reason to turn out besides beating Trump. He’s starting to, and I hope it continues. But will anti-Trump fervor be enough to win Wisconsin? Maybe.”
Recently, Biden began courting progressives by offering sweeping plans to aid working parents and combat climate change. (He is also making a pitch to Trump-averse conservatives by inviting the former Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican, to speak at the Democratic Convention, which will be mostly virtual, this month.) Biden is not repeating Clinton’s mistake of taking Wisconsin for granted. Whereas Clinton did not run her first television ad in the state until a week before the election, Biden’s campaign has already aired ads in five of the state’s media markets. His campaign has hired strategists who worked on Evers’s and Senator Tammy Baldwin’s midterm victories, and he has held several virtual campaign events in Wisconsin, including one devoted to rural issues. Ben Wikler, Wisconsin’s Party chair, sees potential for a Biden victory on the scale of Obama’s in 2008. “There’s a similar sense of profound national crisis,” Wikler said. “People are really hurting—people are dying now—and the level of engagement we’re seeing is enormous.” But Wikler also noted that Clinton had led state polls by fifteen points after the party conventions and by six points a week before the election, roughly the same margin as Biden’s current lead over Trump. Last week, in signing an executive order expanding virtual health services, Trump indicated that he would be fighting for rural voters. “We take care of rural America,” he said.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to allow the April election to proceed may end up helping Biden. After the election, Hogseth called an emergency Zoom meeting of the Dunn County Democrats. Eighty people joined, twice the usual number, some of them Sanders supporters uninspired by Biden. “People were really frustrated and angry that the election took place,” Hogseth said. “What we decided was to make sure the election in November is not just about the Presidential race.” Hogseth believes that Karofsky’s victory reflected a decade’s worth of pent-up progressive anger at the Republican hold on state government. That anger deepened a month later, after Republican legislative leaders took Evers’s stay-at-home order to the State Supreme Court, which overturned the measure. Hogseth thinks that the growing outrage might prove to be Trump’s undoing, too. “This election is also going to be about the high-stakes struggle for power in this state,” Hogseth said. “We’re going to make sure Bernie supporters in Dunn County know that we’re fighting for Wisconsin, too.”
On my way to pay a final visit to Jerry Volenec’s farm, I drove through the Driftless Area. The prairie grasses jutting through the snow, the little country churches, and the birch trees dotting the hillsides all quietly dazzled. I passed through Viroqua, near the headquarters of the Organic Valley dairy coöperative, one of the few economic bright spots in rural Wisconsin. A few miles outside of town, I saw a factory farm with several thousand cows crammed into enormous confinement barns. The stench was overwhelming.
I turned onto Volenec’s road, passing St. John Nepomuc, the Catholic church that the Volenec family has been attending for three generations. Charles Volenec, Jerry’s father, had told me that the congregation was dwindling and that his grandson, who graduated from high school this year, was the church’s only altar boy. The road was lined with cornfields.
In his office, Jerry told me he had written a poem after Sonny Perdue’s talk in Madison. He called it a commentary on “Get big or get out”:
I was told to buy a shovel
So I bought a shovel
I was told to dig
So I dug
What is the hole for I asked
For your neighbor, he has passed
I was told to keep digging
So I put my shovel to the task
A hole for each neighbor
Until I was the last
Keep digging I was told
I looked around and asked
For yourself I was told
You are needed no more.
Volenec told me that he’s grateful to Trump for his political awakening. “I may as well have been asleep before 2016,” he said. “Without Trump’s arrogance, the way he behaves, I probably wouldn’t be paying attention. Provided that he doesn’t drive this country into the ground before he’s replaced, I think he’s woken up a lot of people.”
Volenec has recently found a renewed determination to help save family farms. He has become more active with his co-op and with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. And he has begun connecting with like-minded farmers across the country. “I started out fighting for my own well-being, my own survival,” he said. “It’s evolving for me. I want to be on the right side of what’s coming next.”
His current mood reminded him of an unruly cow that once wandered off his farm. “I was on a four-wheeler and was trying to round her up,” he said. “I chased her round and round. Then she got tired of me chasing her and she stopped, turned, and she was going to fight. She was too tired to run, but she was going to use what she had left. She was challenging me—she was going to fight. I guess that’s where I’m at. I’m running my ass off, I’m tired, and I don’t have the energy to run anymore. But, by God, I’ve got enough in me to stand here and fight.” ♦