- - Sunday, January 27, 2019


Geography — more than race, partisanship or class — has become the crucial dividing line in politics today.

That’s partly because rural and urban Americans embrace different policies informed by different values. But it’s also because the two groups increasingly live lives that are wholly removed from one another.

I was reminded of this recently while visiting the dairy farm of Ken Jereczek and his son, Paul, in Dodge, Wisconsin.

As Paul showed me around their barn and explained some of their farm’s innovations — the Fitbit-like sensory devices that signal when the cows are in heat; the water beds that keep the cows comfortable while lying down; and the mechanical brushes that allow the cows to groom themselves — it struck me how unfamiliar I was with farming life.

I’m not alone. Two hundred years ago, farmers made up nearly three-quarters of America’s workforce. One hundred years later, the share had dropped to a third. Today, just 2 percent of Americans live on farms. The average age of a farmer is 59.

Ken told me there were 45 dairy farms in his township 35 years ago. Theirs is the only one left today.

“There’s a reason why people are selling off,” said Paul. “This isn’t an easy lifestyle.” Paul’s days begin shortly after 3 a.m. and end after 8 p.m. (Somehow, he has found time to write a young-adult novel.) Dairy farming is a seven-days-a-week job and the cows must be milked twice a day.

When you add in the decline in dairy consumption and the trade war, it’s not hard to understand why 600 Wisconsin dairy farms shuttered in 2018, the biggest decline since records started in 2004.

Henry and Noel Filla own a farm in Osseo, Wisconsin, where they grow conventional and organic crops, own a herd of buffalo and a dairy farm that they rent out. “We do a little of everything,” Henry said when we met last summer. “We’re trying to do as much as we can to survive.”

Like the Jereczeks, the Fillas are their towns’ sole farming survivors. Henry told me there were six working farms in Osseo when he and Noel moved to the area 25 years ago. Their farm is the only one left today.

“In rural areas, there are no kids left who know how to work or understand the farm,” Henry said. “Not that kids in town don’t know how to work, but it’s a different mindset.”

Today, ambitious kids in rural areas often leave home for the state school, where they’re inculcated with liberal values and enticed by more lucrative and less physically demanding careers. They rarely return. This deepens the divide between rural and urban America. So does the perception that the cities ignore the countryside.

“Look at the roads,” Ken Jereczek said of the disparity in resources available to address infrastructure in rural and urban Wisconsin. “If you go to Green Bay, Madison, or Milwaukee, you see all these overpasses and all that, and their roads are getting fixed and ours are just patched. But our milk truck has to get down the road.”

Ken was echoing the view Kathy Cramer found was common throughout rural Wisconsin while researching her 2016 book “The Politics of Resentment.” “Ignored by government and by the news media,” Ms. Cramer wrote about rural Wisconsinites, “these folks felt neglected by the powers that be.”

It’s easy to see why rural Americans feel taken for granted. It often seems that people in the power centers don’t appreciate the knowledge they have or the work they do — whether it’s the farmers who produce the food we eat, the manufacturers who make the products we buy, or the truckers who deliver those products to our doorsteps.

From their vantage point, people far off in cities are making decisions that affect their lives and cost them money but don’t seem to benefit them.

“You know what upsets me the most?” said Jeff Praxel, a milk hauler I met at the Jereczek’s farm.

“When I became a milk hauler, I never realized how much comes off this farm. It’s not just the milk. It’s all the byproducts. The creamery, the powdered milk, the candy bars, the syrups. [People who live in cities] just don’t realize everything that comes off a dairy farm. Let alone every fricken’ hamburger. Every fast food burger comes from places like this. Not a beef farm. From a dairy farm, because [dairy beef] is cheaper and leaner.”

It’s not just policymakers who are removed from rural America. It’s also the media. With the demise of local news, it’s been left to national outlets to report for the entire country.

But most people in media work far away in coastal cities. According to one study, nine in 10 Internet publishing employees live in counties won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Very few of those counties are in rural areas.

The result is that people who have never set foot on a farm are devising budgets and enacting rules and regulations that profoundly affect farmers, while journalists living in liberal urban enclaves are reporting on them.

When people are disconnected from the process of making the things they consume, they cannot fully appreciate the resources required to produce and maintain them.

• Daniel Allott is the author of the “Into Trump’s America” reporting project and formerly the Washington Examiner’s deputy commentary editor.

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