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The Milk House: The Wisconsin milk strikes

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 June 2022

According to the international dairy market site clal.it, the U.S. farmgate milk price in May 2020 dropped to a low of $13.60. That is nearly half of the current reported price at the time of writing this column.

With Covid in full force, there was a lot going on in the world in summer 2020, but that didn’t lessen the pain felt by dairy farmers. In all likelihood, some farmers might have felt their particular concerns were getting lost in the international crisis happening around them.

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Almost a century ago, American dairy farmers faced what was, perhaps, a somewhat analogous situation.

By 1933, the Great Depression was in full swing. What was started by the U.S. stock market crash in 1929 eventually became a global phenomenon that lasted 10 years, the global GDP declining more than 25%. The fact that workers were suffering all around the world was little consolation to Wisconsin dairy farmers, however. They not only witnessed the farmgate price drop significantly but also the proportion they received for a gallon of milk in comparison to manufacturers and retailers. To make matters worse, farms who supplied milk for hard dairy products received half the price of those whose milk went for bottling, further stoking tensions.

Wisconsin was the largest dairy-producing state at the time, with 63% of all land put to farm use. Farmers were angry and ready for action. What would ensue would be one of the most violent moments in American dairy farming history.

Walter M. Singler, president of the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool, organized the first milk strike of 1933 on Feb. 15. There were already milk strikes occurring in the U.S., particularly in the Midwest. Many of these events were run by the National Farm Holiday Association, which encouraged farmers to withhold their products from markets until their demands were met. Singler’s strike was concentrated in the area covered by the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool. Although the National Farm Holiday Association was involved, their members ended their strike prematurely, leaving the Milk Pool to carry on by themselves.

Singler first called for five days of withholding milk, hoping to avoid some of the extreme measures enacted in other parts of the country. However, their demands were not met, and farmers took to blocking milk routes and vandalizing cheese plants and creameries. Nonetheless, milk haulers found alternative routes to reach the factories in Milwaukee, and the strike ended on Feb. 22 without success.

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Another strike was called for on May 13. By now, tempers were at a fever pitch and all patience had run out. In the end, the second strike lasted six days and was replete with violence.

In an effort to cripple dairy processing and block the hauling routes, farmers gathered at plants or in the middle of the road, engaging in battle with the National Guard. In Shawano County, 30 farmers were injured in front of a milk plant but were reported to have won the skirmish by throwing the cans of tear gas back at the National Guard. In what became termed “The Battle of Durham Hill,” guardsmen charged at 300 to 400 farmers with pointed baronets in Waukesha County. In other locations, cheese plants and creameries were bombed or vandalized, one group pouring kerosene over 600 pounds of freshly made cheese.

Many of those who opposed the milk strikes feared someone was going to get killed. Unfortunately, that’s what happened.

On May 16, two teenagers drove their vehicle toward a National Guard checkpoint in Racine County. When they failed to stop the vehicle, a guardsman shot both of them, killing one boy. Two days later, a farmer died after he was pushed off the running board of a milk truck leaving a roadblock.

On May 19, a temporary peace was made between the protesting farmers and the Wisconsin state government. Governor Alfred Schmedeman agreed to appoint a farmer-controlled committee to study the milk pricing system and consider the demands made by the strikers. After several months, however, nothing had changed. Farmers once again returned to action.

On Oct. 21, a third milk strike was called, one that would last nearly a month and affect a greater portion of the state. Local papers described the farmers as “skinny and ragged” but “fierce.” In total, they bombed seven plants with dynamite and forced thousands of pounds of milk into the ditch. They attacked the train lines, sometimes laying their bodies on the track. Piles of empty milk cans littered the railway in such places. Unfortunately, once again the strikes were not without tragedy. One car trying to get through a blockade had its headlight smashed. The driver got out and fired a pistol into the crowd. It killed a 60-year-old farmer who was not part of the protestors but only there to deliver food.

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Despite the increased duration and intensity of the third strike, and the lives lost that year, nothing changed for Wisconsin dairy farmers. It is estimated they forfeited $10 million as a whole – an astronomical figure at that time – without achieving any reform in the industry. In the end, historians noted that while the public was generally sympathetic to the farmers, they lost out to various competing interests – including moonshine. It was later asserted that many sheriff departments felt obligated to keep the roads open for bootlegger deliveries. While breaking up a roadblock, one such officer was quoted as saying, “The mail, the milk and the moon must go through.”

The 1933 milk strikes weren’t the last ones to occur in the U.S., nor were they the only ones to fail to achieve their objective. Farmer protests have become much more common in European countries than in North America, perhaps owing partly to the national memory of not attaining their goals in the past. Unfortunately, just how Wisconsin farmers had to wait for the economy to recover due to World War II, so did recent farmers have to persist until the effects of Covid on the food chain subsided. In a world of contending concerns, it can be hard to make the farmer’s voice heard. end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis.

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