WESTBY, Wisconsin — Spend any time with people who supported presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and you quickly find out that the reasons they voted for Trump had very little to do with him.
It is likely one of the most misunderstood threads among this new conservative populist coalition. To get the real reasons for their support for Trump, you have to be where they are, have no preconceived ideas about who they are and have no prejudice for what you think their motivations are.
Tom Schaub, Ralph Petersheim, Donna Leum, Kris Amundson and Ben Klinkner are all sitting around a large conference table at the Westby Cooperative Creamery in this Vernon County town. There is a pot of coffee and an oversized box of doughnuts. The aroma that only bakery-fresh doughnuts can provide radiates throughout the room.
All four are dairy farmers. Schaub is president of the co-op. Petersheim has been recognized for his water and land conservation efforts by the county, earning him the Outstanding Conservation Farmer Award for his impeccable land efforts. Leum’s family owns a 53-cow dairy, and both of her adult children are in different aspects of the dairy agriculture industry. Amundson’s family produces 17,200 pounds of milk per cow each year for the cooperative. Klinkner is a sixth-generation farmer on his family’s organic dairy farm.
They are all board members of a co-op that was formed over 117 years ago by local dairy farm families searching for a way to develop a sustainable market for their milk and dairy products in their creamery.
Individually, they are superhumans. Not only do they work the dawn-to-dusk hours required to bring you cheese, yogurt, milk, sour cream and any other dairy delight that fills refrigerators (cows are milked twice a day every day of the year); they are devoted conservationists of the soil and water, and are tireless volunteers dedicating countless hours to the 4-H club, local schools, their churches and the co-op board.
They all said their vote for Trump wasn’t for him but rather for their communities.
It was an abstract and complicated decision that rarely makes sense to people who don’t walk in their shoes, live in their ZIP code or understand how long establishments within both parties have let them down, their parents down, their grandparents down and their children down.
“People who don’t know farmers or live near or in a farm community have little idea of why we feel so connected to our place,” said Leum. “But they do seem to have strong opinions about who we are, and when they find out we supported Trump, they look at us as that dumb farmer who doesn’t know any better.”
“Well those dumb farmers, they’re an electrician. They’re a plumber. They are mechanics, scientists, conservationists. They take care of the crops that fill their cupboards, (who) love and care for the animals who provide dairy and meat for their feasts. They are also vets and engineers,” she says with pride and a broad smile. “I mean, we have all these skills because you cannot keep calling repair people, so you do it yourself. So actually, I think we are pretty darn smart.”
Overall, there are 68,700 farms in Wisconsin covering 14.4 million acres of land. They provide nearly $90 billion for the state economy every year and employ over 400,000 people statewide.
There are nearly 8,500 dairy farms in Wisconsin. Hundreds of them shuttered in 2019, continuing a 10-year trend the co-op board members said is largely based on a complex pricing system and fixed costs being spread over a wide swath of production.
“On the co-op level, we’re given an advance price of what the milk is supposed to be for the month, so we base all of our prices on the products that we’re making and selling,” explained Schaub. “And then when the final price comes in, it can be a $2 difference.”
“Well, that $2 difference. … There’s no way to make that up, so, then you have a loss for that month. Then, you string too many months like that in a row, and that’s when things get rough,” he said, adding that the eventual result could be bankruptcy.
All five farmers like President Trump’s policies. His demeanor? Not so much. But they knew Trump would come through with better trade deals, which he did with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Vernon County is one of the 23 counties that voted for then-President Barack Obama in 2012 and switched to Trump in 2016.
While many national outlets have parachuted into the Vernon Counties of the last presidential race to ask voters about Trump when the trade deal dragged on, when special counsel Robert Mueller’s report was released and when Trump was impeached (and acquitted), few journalists ask voters how they got here in the first place. Furthermore, few members of the Republican and Democratic establishments who mock farmers behind closed doors (or openly on social media) have reflected meaningfully about why farmers picked Trump over their establishment candidates.
Despite moans from the chattering class saying there have been too many stories on Trump voters, farmers such as these have a story to tell about lives focused on faith, family and farming. Few who actually know them could argue they’re not creating a profound benefit for the entire country.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.