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Wisconsin Dairy Farmer Weighs In On The Election, COVID-19 Spike

NOEL KING, HOST:

Wisconsin is a key swing state in this election. That's been true for a long while. But this year, there's COVID, and cases in Wisconsin are surging. So what are voters thinking? Rick Roden is 36, and he's been a dairy farmer since - well, if you ask him, since he could walk.

RICK RODEN: When I was 3 years old, I knew every cow in the barn already.

KING: (Laughter).

RODEN: And, honestly, I don't know what else I would do if I couldn't farm today.

KING: He works a family farm - 700 cows in Washington County. It's a deeply Republican region and part of the Milwaukee metropolitan area. He told me that from where he's standing, the virus doesn't look that bad.

RODEN: To me, personally, that the cases are rising in Wisconsin really doesn't affect me much or it doesn't make a difference to me. I may have had the virus already and I didn't know it.

KING: He's actually way more concerned about his farm. The price of milk, like the price of anything a farm produces, is subject to swings, and the past few years have been rough. But projections showed that this year would be a good one for dairy farmers.

RODEN: 2020 was going to be our year, and then the COVID hit. Then you were seeing the dumping of the milk, you know, limits being put in the grocery stores. Our milk price then went from close to $20 to - in April, we got paid $10.50. Our price was cut in half.

KING: Ooh.

RODEN: Then our supplier told us, for May, June and July, we need to cut our production to 80% of our base. Well, how do I tell my cows to - hey, can you give me a little less milk today or - you know, we milk them every day. Then in June, things started opening up a little bit again. Prices have been very favorable for the rest of the year.

KING: That is good news. So who did you vote for four years ago in 2016?

RODEN: I did vote for Donald Trump four years ago.

KING: What was the appeal? Why did you like President Trump?

RODEN: I guess our family has traditionally been Republican. You know, I guess the things we liked about him is he was a businessman. And, you know, dairy farmers, amongst a lot of farmers, it's no more just milking cows and driving tractors - we're businessmen, too. And, you know, he's all about businesses, giving them the taxes that they need to be competitive in the United States. And he's done that.

KING: I wonder what you thought at the moment that President Trump started the trade war with China and said, China's taking advantage of us; I'm going to do something about it. Did you think at the time, this could affect my business?

RODEN: You know, we were maybe a little bit nervous at first. But as things have progressed, you know, he's making those agreements, and he's building those relationships to continue to export our products in a successful way.

KING: Did you see your bottom line start to take a hit?

RODEN: Not that I recall.

KING: OK. So it sounds like over the past four years, the main problem that you've had has been the pandemic. Let me ask you - President Trump supported farmers with billions of dollars in subsidies. Did you get any government subsidies?

RODEN: We have, especially this past year, that - you know, there was some subsidies that were given to dairy farmers.

KING: And were those subsidies for COVID or subsidies because of the ripple effect from the trade war?

RODEN: From the COVID.

KING: Let me ask you about the argument that if President Trump had handled COVID better, if they'd been honest up front and said this virus is dangerous, it's more dangerous than the flu, that we might have seen things turn out better. Is there any part of you that thinks President Trump has mishandled this in any way?

RODEN: Not really. I think President Trump has handled this pandemic the best that he could with the information that they had at the time. Now, moving forward, when he said he was going to leave it up to the states and go state by state, you know, I guess I respect him for that because it shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all approach. To me, this corona or this virus isn't as serious as I think we were led it - to believe.

KING: Do you know anyone who's died of COVID or who's gotten very sick?

RODEN: Yes, we've known people that have gotten COVID. We've known people that have gotten sick from it. But I do not know anybody that's been hospitalized or has died from it.

KING: Good. I'm glad to hear that. Do you have any kids?

RODEN: I have two girls. One is going to be 4 at the end of the year here, and one is a year and a half.

KING: In the last four years, I think you could argue, fairly, the country has become more divided. There are people who look at the way the president talks. There are people who look at the president sending federal troops into the streets of some U.S. cities and they say, I don't like what's going on here. You know, what do you think about this notion that he's actually not good for the United States?

RODEN: You know, we're living in a different world today than we were a long time ago. But this world is constantly changing. You know, as far as equal rights to everybody, you know, women and Blacks have a lot of same opportunities that, you know, we may have today that maybe they didn't have years ago. You know, protests are good, and they're fine. But when somebody starts rioting, they need to be held accountable, and something need to be done about that.

KING: Who do you think is responsible for it?

RODEN: (Laughter) I don't know who would be responsible for that, all the stuff happening. If it's the Black Lives Matter movement is what's behind all that and - I don't know.

KING: It sounds like as long as it's sort of not in your neck of the woods, you are not terribly curious about why this is happening.

RODEN: Well, I'm not going to say it wasn't in our neck of the woods because down in Kenosha is where a lot of stuff was kind of going on here. Just read an article - a farm in Nebraska who is flying Trump flags that had his combine, tractor and grain cart and two semis start on fire out in the field. For what? That's uncalled for. Whoever did that to him, they should be in jail. You're talking almost several hundred thousand dollars' worth of equipment damaged. I hope they never come to us or come near us with anything. But, boy, yeah, it's a different world that we live in today right now.

KING: What do you think would happen if Joe Biden won the election?

RODEN: One of my fears if Joe Biden would win the election is he's talking about making mask mandates and kind of shutting the economy back down again. Now, maybe not to the extent that it was in March, but we need these businesses open. We need these restaurants open that are going to consume our cheese and consume our dairy products. I'm afraid if Biden gets in as president, we might start looking like March and April again before we start heading in the right direction.

KING: That was Rick Roden. He's a dairy farmer in West Bend, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONBRUKET'S "LILO (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.