Puentes/Bridges seeks to better connect farmers with their Mexican employees
Dairy farmers in southeast Minnesota recently had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of employees they work with daily on their farms.
For generations, Puentes/Bridges has helped farming communities in west central Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota bridge the cultural and language gaps between Mexican workers, the farmers with whom they work, and the communities in which they live.
A lot of that work is done via immersion trips, which were the subject of an April 17 presentation in Preston, Minnesota.
Mercedes Falk, president of Puentes/Bridges, said the organization got its start in the late '90s, when she said there were a lot of Midwest dairy farmers struggling to find employees.
"And there were a lot of folks from Mexico that were coming up here from rural areas looking for work," Falk said. "And they started to find a lot of commonalities with dairy farms, because they came from an agricultural society and were used to working with animals and working on farms, and they kind of linked up with each other."
Falk, who is from Buffalo County, shared how efforts by Carl Duley, a University of Wisconsin Extension agent from the county, and Shaun Duvall, a local high school Spanish teacher at the time, started to closely connect local farmers and their workers from Mexico.
"(Duvall) started working with farmers and also was teaching English to employees from Mexico, and as they started to learn a little bit more of the language, she quickly learned that so much more was needed, just besides communication, that there were some cultural differences," Falk said.
In 2001, Duvall led a two-week trip to Mexico with 15 farmers in which they immersed themselves in Spanish language classes, cultural immersion experiences and visits with employees’ families. John Rosenow, one of the farmers on the trip, said it was life-changing for him and upon returning home, he and Duvall incorporated Puentes/Bridges as a non-profit.
"The trips kind of started with wanting to learn the language. Quickly, people realized, one it's hard to learn second language, especially after a certain age. And two, there are a lot of connections that can be made, just when you have the desire to want to understand another person," Falk said.
Since then, the annual trips have turned into full-on immersion experiences that focus on visiting the families of employees working on dairy farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
"Our trips have evolved into getting to know families, getting to see the villages where the employees come from, and the houses that they have built for their families, for their parents, for their wife for their kids," Falk said. "We get the chance to share meals around a table with each other and learn about culture."
A group of four farmers including Michael Johnson of Fountain, Minnesota, and Cole Hoscheit of Caledonia, Minnesota, traveled to the mountainous regions around Zongolica and Cuatepec de Hinojosa, Mexico, this past winter.
On one of the first days into their trip, Johnson said they traveled around the small villages and rural communities in Zongolica. At one of the communities they went to, which Johnson said was located on a dead end in a mountainous area, they were greeted by a family who shared with them that it was a special day.
"They said this is our traditional day when we plant our first corn," Johnson said.
Their reasoning for this was to have their corn harvested and dried by January of the next year, when they would be celebrating Three Kings Day. Some years, the weather was not right for planting, so they would just plant a few kernels to mark the date. But when the Midwest farmers were there, Johnson said, the weather was perfect for planting, and they were planting an entire field. He said it was much different than the planting they were used to.
"We told them we want to see where you're planting — we're farmers, we want to feel the dirt, want to touch it and smell it and understand what you're doing," he said. "And they were planting on this hill, which is really steep — it's a mountain, steeper than the hills along the Mississippi. And they're planting corn on it, but it's all planted by hand and harvested by hand."
Johnson explained how some of the younger farmers were attending classes to learn how to improve planting conditions and the fertilizer they use.
"They're trying to get better, and improve, but it's just a whole different world than I've ever experienced," Johnson said. "They were really proud of it, and the progress they've made, and the better kernels and ears they were getting."
Both Johnson and Hoscheit said their biggest takeaway from the trip was how family in Mexico was the core of their culture.
"The biggest takeaway is family, and when we're working with our guys, day in and day out, getting to know them, you become a family, and they're all about family," Hoscheit said. "So the stronger you can make that bond, I think the better employees you can have to grow your business and continue the business on."