Hans Breitenmoser: Dairy Farmer for Fair Maps

“Wisconsin is so severely gerrymandered that you can't even hardly think straight.”

Joel Bleifuss & Justin Perkins August 16, 2023

When Barn Raiser sat down with Wisconsin dairy farmer Hans Breitenmoser for this interview and explained it would form part of a series on rural organizers, he replied, “Well, I guess you’re starting at the bottom and working your way up.” Yet, behind Breitenmoser’s unflagging humility is an equally tireless sense of determination.

In 2017, as an elected member of the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors, a Republican stronghold in recent years, Breitenmoser persuaded his fellow supervisors to adopt a resolution that called for the Wisconsin legislature to hand over the redistricting process to a nonpartisan commission. Wisconsin’s legislative maps, drawn by Republicans in 2011 and updated in 2021, are considered among the most heavily gerrymandered in the nation, allowing Republicans to hold a near-supermajority in both state legislative houses despite the state’s relatively even 50-50 political divide.

Gerrymandering became Breitenmoser’s “crusade.” The passage of the resolution against gerrymandering in Lincoln County, ignited similar efforts across the state in what became known as the Fair Maps movement. Prior to the 2022 election, 56 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties had passed similar resolutions, representing more than three-fourths of the population. This August, voting rights groups petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which now has a liberal majority, to invalidate the state’s legislative and congressional maps for favoring Republicans. The court’s ruling could have wide-ranging impacts for Wisconsin’s 2024 general election.

Working with the Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative of North Central Wisconsin, Breitenmoser has continued to lead on issues of affordable housing, healthcare and ensuring fair elections. Robert Kraig, Executive Director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, says, “Sometimes it feels like Hans is everywhere, doing more work than any single person could possibly do.”

Barn Raiser: How would you describe the community you live in? Its people, its political culture, its history?

Hans Breitenmoser: I’m in in north central Wisconsin, in Lincoln County, about four miles west of the county seat, which is a little town called Merrill, which has between 9,000 and 10,000 inhabitants. I was born in Merrill, and I never left.

I’m 54 years old and, having been here for my entire life, I’ve seen things change. We’ve lost a lot of farms, especially dairy farms—I couldn’t put a number on it. We no longer have a functioning feed mill. We no longer have an implement dealership, or a large animal vet. We’ve basically lost all our ag infrastructure. It hasn’t stopped what I do for a living. I have 470 cows and I can get what I need to run my dairy farm. 

I think we’ve seen the same trends as a lot of places. Merrill got its first Walmart a while back, and now they’ve abandoned that one and built a new one. That had a similar impact to what’s been happening in so many rural communities. Once the freeway goes past your town, it puts some pressure on the downtown. All the new businesses try and get as close to the freeway as possible.

For ten years I was on the county board, and I’ve seen the frustration with how we’re treated by the state at the county level, with less and less revenue sharing from the state. School budgets have been struggling. We’ve seen a lot of smaller schools that have folded up and combined with others to survive. A lot of referendums to fund public schools get put on the ballot, but they don’t pass. I don’t think all of this is greatly different from other rural areas around the state or even around the country.

Barn Raiser: What allowed you to stay here for so long? Does your family have a long history in the area?

Breitenmoser: My parents moved here in 1968 from Switzerland. I was born in 1969, and I just stuck around. I like it here. I like what I do. I always wanted a farm ever since I was a kid.

As the story goes, my father was enamored with the idea of America. And his father, my grandfather, was very much someone who always saw the grass greener on the other side; he could not stay in one place for very long. And then in 1968, my dad and grandfather announced to the womenfolk, that they were going to Wisconsin to check out some farms to purchase because they had seen some advertisements in farm publications in Switzerland, and at the time they rented a farm.

My mom and her mother-in-law thought those guys were going to come back with their tail between their legs. But when my dad and grandfather came back, they announced they had in fact bought a farm. As my mother tells the story, she and her mother-in-law cried and cried because they did not want to move to America.

In about three or four years, my grandparents moved back to Switzerland, but my parents stayed, along with my older sister who was born in Switzerland. My father learned English as quickly as he could by getting a job at the feed mill—and he spent a lot of time in the taverns. My mom learned English by watching Sesame Street with us kids. They never looked back. My dad passed away a couple of years ago now, and my mom still lives in the house on the farm. In fact, I just had lunch with her, and she said the best thing they ever did was come over here.

In the mid 1960s to 1970s there was a small wave of Swiss immigrants that came to Lincoln County. That had to do with the fact that there was a Swiss immigrant here who was peddling real estate and there were Swiss farmers like my parents who could never afford land in Switzerland because it was so very expensive.

Barn Raiser: How are immigrant communities integrating into the wider community today?  Do those dynamics translate to the political culture that surrounds you?

Breitenmoser: One of the things that we’re trying to get politicians in Madison to understand is the idea that if you can pass a driver’s test, you should be able to get a driver’s license. [Editors’ note: Act 126, which passed in Wisconsin in 2006 and took effect in 2007, prohibited undocumented immigrants and those without a social security number from renewing or obtaining a driver’s license or state identification.] Prior to 2007, if you could pass a test, you could get a driver’s license. The DMV didn’t ask if you came from Mexico or Mars. My mom is one of those examples. Even though she could barely speak English, she was able to pass the driver’s test with translation help from the guy at the DMV and ultimately got her driver’s license.

But I didn’t mean to avoid your question. I think the interesting thing in my rural part of the world, is that most people, if they are not involved in agriculture, don’t understand the fact that the dairy industry simply would not exist without the folks who come here from south of the border. If you were to wave a magic wand and make all the Mexicans go away, the dairy industry would collapse. Realistically, anybody that’s got 200 cows or more has to have employees. More often than not, those employees come from another country.

If you go to Abbotsford, for example, which is about 40 minutes south and west, there’s a huge immigrant population, mostly Mexican, and it’s largely because of the Abbyland Foods meat packing plant over there. The main street in Abbotsford would be dead if it were not populated by Mexican businesses, restaurants, groceries, dress shops and the like. The Abbotsford school district would straight up cease to exist, except for so many Mexican kids go to school there. I feel like in many ways the mainstream Anglo culture in Merrill doesn’t realize this whole other culture that’s operating alongside them but in the shadows.

Barn Raiser: It’s fascinating, as you point out, this contradiction between large-scale narratives that oppose immigration and the rights of undocumented residents with the on-the-ground realities that show how immigration touches all these different facets of life. How has your work tried to address the challenges you just mentioned?

Breitenmoser: Clearly, immigration policy in the United States is broken. It’s been broken for a long time.  But locally, we can encourage our local and state legislators to take another look at the driver’s license issue and try and educate them.

I’ll give you an example. In March, I was involved in a listening session with some members of the state Senate. They did not even know that prior to 2007, there was nothing stopping you from getting a driver’s license if you could pass a test. They didn’t understand the fact that these folks are going to drive whether or not they have a license, nor did they understand how many people are driving without a license on our roads right now.  So that’s the kind of thing that we need to keep doing is to keep educating our public policymakers.

The issue should be pretty straightforward for Democrats and Republicans to agree on. They should be able to ask, what is gained by having an entire population drive on the roads without benefit of having been educated how to do so? Anybody that can connect the dots would be able to say, well, let’s see, nothing. On the contrary, what is to be gained by the ability for everybody to go and take a test, get insurance and all that? Oh, my God, everything is to be gained. We can make the roads safer and the insurance cheaper, and we’ve reduced the amount of potential for local law enforcement to be accused of racially profiling somebody because they pull over a brownish person going down the road.

All of these things should be obvious. Why don’t they get done? The reason they don’t get done is because Wisconsin is so severely gerrymandered that you can’t even hardly think straight.

Back in 2017, I passed a resolution at the county board level saying we should have a nonpartisan procedure for drawing our legislative and congressional districts in Wisconsin. That resolution passed overwhelmingly in our little Lincoln County.  At that point, I had been on the county board for about six, or seven years. We sat around the county board room and the committee tables and we asked ourselves again and again, “What’s the disconnect here? That’s when I finally understood at a greater level that if you have gerrymandered districts, or if you have districts drawn by political parties and high-priced lawyers and not done transparently, you’re not going to represent the people who actually live there.

So I thought, okay, well with our little county board we can say, “This is B.S. and it should be changed.” And the resolution passed handily. The next step then was to make sure that as many people around the state knew what we had passed. We took it to the Wisconsin Counties Association and got it passed there. The next step was to get a referendum on the ballot in Lincoln County.  I don’t want to take more credit on this than I should, because there were a handful of counties that passed a resolution prior to Lincoln County doing so. But it seemed like Lincoln County really sort of kicked it off. My goal was not just to pass it in Lincoln County and then just roll over. The point was to pass it so that other counties would be inspired. And then I tried to spend as much time as I had to encourage these other counties. For example, I came up with a primer on how to approach your county board and how to get things passed.

Finally, we got the referendum on the ballot, months before Election Day.  It passed by over 65%, even though a majority of voters went Republican up and down the ballot.  We found that people across the political spectrum are in favor of having lines drawn in a transparent manner by civil servants approved by legislators.

What’s encouraging is that we can agree on two of the most foundational things of our democracy: free and fair elections. It’s just a matter of getting people educated about it and then breaking through all the noise that we’re all listening to in our own silos. You know, I mean, I’m a progressive, so I consume things that are biased in that direction, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to turn on Fox News because it’s just it’s just that my cup of meat? But at the same time you can’t crucify people who believe certain things passionately. If all they’ve exposed themselves to is Fox News at night and Rush Limbaugh during the day, why would you think they would agree with you on anything if you’re a progressive? They’re living in a whole ‘nother environment.

Hans Breitenmoser makes a statement against gerrymandering on his farm in Lincoln County outside of Merrill, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jenn Ackerman, Ackerman + Gruber LLC)

Barn Raiser: You’ve already spoken to this somewhat, but what are the concerns of your neighbors in Lincoln County?

Breitenmoser: I don’t know. That should be a very straightforward and easy question for me to answer. As you probably have ascertained by now, I don’t give easy, straightforward answers.  I sometimes feel removed from my physical immediate community to a certain extent. My farming community is different than my immediate neighborhood community because Lincoln County has lost all the infrastructure for the dairy industry. I deal with businesses that are not located in my town, but 20, 40 or 50 miles from me. I now have a relationship with implement dealers in Marathon County, the vet’s office in Marathon County, the feed mills and agronomy places in Marathon County, as well as the mechanics and tire guys in Marathon and Clark County.

For my dad’s generation, the physical geographical community was also his community, in terms of the church that he went to, the school system that he sent his children to and the infrastructure that his business worked with. The milk that was produced on our farm went to a cheese factory on the east side of Merrill. There was a bottling and milk bottling plant two miles from me where I’m sitting right now. That milk was in the tiny cartons of milk we drank at the elementary school. Both the bottling plant and elementary school are gone now. So you see where some of the connections that we had were once so full that have now been totally removed. My kids go to a school district that’s not located in our town—in fact, it’s virtual.

When you say, “my community,” I’m not even sure what that means anymore. I feel like I’m part of different communities that have been fragmented, and that troubles me. I don’t think that’s a good thing. So what bothers my neighbors? Boy, you know, I’m reluctant to paint with a broad brush.

I think it’s easy for people to become subject to the manufactured outrage that exists.

Breitenmoser walking with his son Calvin on his farm in 2019. “I think if we don’t have hope in our children, then it’s pretty hopeless,” says Breitenmoser. (Photo by Jenn Ackerman, Ackerman + Gruber LLC)

Barn Raiser: What gives you hope?

Breitenmoser: What gives me hope? Well, it just walked in here. This is my son, Calvin. He’s a pretty good kid, and he takes after his mother—thankfully. He just got done rolling some alfalfa fields that we replanted.

An example of the miracle your children perform for you was my introduction to the Wisconsin Farmers Union. One time we stumbled across the Farmers Union booth at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Custer, Wisconsin.

Even though I had been farming my entire life, I didn’t know anything about the Farmers Union. They were offering a summer camp that year, and since we aren’t with any religious tradition, we were on board and sent the kids the Farmers Union summer camp.

That’s when I learned they were interested in how cooperatives work, and promoting social justice and environmental issues and stuff like that. I was impressed with Farmers Union because they always seem to have a pretty good knack at seeing the big picture rather than dealing with symptoms.

They looked at some of the issues we’re dealing with and they said, “Well, one of the problems we’re dealing with is gerrymandering.” Now, as a farm organization, they could have said that’s outside of our jurisdiction. We don’t need to know about that. But the Farmers Union is different. They said, “Well, of course that matters because good farm policy comes from the same place that all good public policy comes from, which is you can’t have that when you have gerrymandered lines.”

When I started my little crusade against gerrymandering, I made sure that I reached out to Wisconsin Farmers Union. We then collaborated back and forth, and they were helpful in getting out the message.

So Calvin is my hope for the future, along with the rest of my children because I think that they’re smart and resilient.

I think if we don’t have hope in our children, then it’s pretty hopeless.

This Barn Raiser interview is part of an ongoing series on rural changemakers and organizers.

Joel Bleifuss

Joel Bleifuss is Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher and Board President of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is a descendent of German and Scottish farmers who immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the 19th Century to become farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. His grandmother was born in the Scottish Highlands to parents listed in the Census of Great Britain, 1881 as “farm servants” on land owned by the Duke of Fife. Joel himself was born and raised in Fulton, Mo., a small town on the edge of the Ozark Highlands. He got his start in journalism in 1983 as a feature writer and Saturday reporter/photographer for his hometown daily, the Fulton Sun. Bleifuss joined the staff of In These Times magazine in October 1986, stepping down as Editor & Publisher in April 2022, to join his fellow barn raisers in getting Barn Raiser off the ground.

Justin Perkins

Justin Perkins is Barn Raiser Deputy Editor & Publisher and Board Clerk of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is currently finishing his Master of Divinity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The son of a hog farmer, he grew up in Papillion, Neb., and got his start as a writer with his hometown newspaper the Papillion Times, The Daily Nebraskan, Rural America In These Times and In These Times. He has previous editorial experience at Prairie Schooner and Image.

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