Puentes/Bridges

Building Cultural Bridges: How an area non-profit is helping Midwestern dairy farmers build relationships with their immigrant employees from Mexico.

BY MAGGIE SONNEK

As Mike and Kris Ingvalson pack their bags and prepare for a late-winter trip from the frigid Midwest to sunny Arizona, Mike isn’t worried about leaving his large dairy farm. He has seven workers who will make sure everything goes as planned.

“I have the best crew I’ve ever had working for me,” he says, speaking of his team of immigrant workers, all from one region in Mexico. “They take care of me. I never worry about the work getting done.”

The location of Zongolica in Mexico; Mike & Kris Ingvalson; Mike & Adrian

At left, Mike and Kris Ingvalson pose in a ‘Happy Birthday’ frame. Above, the photo and map pinpoint where Zongolica is located in Mexico, and what the region looks like. Below, Mike poses with Adrian.
Photos courtesy Puentes/Bridges.

In fact, it was just a year ago that he took a different trip – this time to that region in Mexico. He visited one of his former employees, Adrian, and Adrian’s family.

Mike and Kris own and run a second-generation dairy farm, Ingvalson Hilltop Farms, in the southeastern Minnesota town of Caledonia. They’re one of roughly 15 farms in western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota involved in Puentes/Bridges, a nonprofit that organizes annual trips to Mexico to bridge the cultural gap between farmers and their immigrant employees. By allowing dairy farmers to meet the wives, parents, and children of their employees, connections between the two cultures are formed. This often results in employee longevity and productivity.

Puentes/Bridges is based out of Fountain City, Wisconsin, a small town perched on the Mississippi about 40 miles north of La Crosse. Puentes is the Spanish word for bridges, and, living up to its name, the non-profit is all about building cultural bridges.

Puentes/Bridges founder, Shaun Duvall, originally started the program in the late 1990s to help ease the language barrier between dairy farmers and their employees. At the time, she was a Spanish teacher in western Wisconsin. She is thrilled that the program has continued on, and transformed into one that’s not just closing the language gap, but building lasting relationships between farmers and employees.

“It’s not rocket science,” the now-retired teacher and former Puentes/Bridges director says. “These workers want what everyone else does: A decent wage for their work and a better life for their families.”

Before hiring employees, Mike handled most of the milking and farm chores by himself – until his three kids got involved with high school activities. He and Kris wanted to be present for each of their games and band concerts. Around that same time, he started milking three times a day.

“I knew how to work with cows, but I was a little scared to work with people,” he says with a chuckle. “But, I knew if I didn’t hire people to help me, I’d miss my kids growing up.”

Though his crew changes, Mike says every hire has exceeded his expectations. In fact, they’ve become like family, strengthened by the fact that all seven men live just yards away from the barn in a house owned by Mike.

Veracruz viewed from the van; dairy farmer Stan Linder; Adrian's house built for several families

At left, the mountainous region of Veracruz, as viewed from the 10-passenger van driven by Stan Linder, a dairy farmer from Stockholm, Wisconsin (pictured above middle). Stan was one of nine area folks who went on a trip to Mexico in January 2019. Above right, Adrian’s 4,000-square-feet house, built as a home for several families. Throughout the 10 years that Adrian worked for Mike Ingvalson, he deliberately and regularly sent money home to his family so they could build that house. Photos courtesy Puentes/Bridges.

So, when Mike and Kris had the opportunity to visit former employee Adrian, they jumped at the chance. When they arrived in the small town of Zongolica, in the southern, mountainous state of Veracruz, four hours east of Mexico City, Mike was stunned. Adrian’s 4,000-square-feet home, meant for several families, was gorgeous both inside and out, he says. The most impressive part? Throughout the 10 years that Adrian worked for Mike, he deliberately and regularly sent money home to his family so they could build that house.

But, what stuck with Mike more than the spacious, beautiful home, was a conversation he had with Adrian’s mother. “I pulled her aside and said, ‘How were you able to let your son leave when he was just a teenager? Weren’t you afraid?’ She told me that yes, she was scared, but she prayed that he would be safe and would connect to a good family.” Mike pauses. “I couldn’t believe the faith she had.”

Puentes/Bridges has allowed Mike to understand the lives and backgrounds of his employees –like Adrian – many of whom are undocumented and under the risk of detention, all for the pursuit for a better life.

Immigrant workers now make up an estimated 51 percent of all dairy workers in the U.S. According to a national survey of dairy farms*, eliminating the immigrant labor force would reduce the U.S. dairy herd by 2.1 million cows. Milk production would decrease by 48 billion pounds – as would the number of dairy farms. This would cause retail milk prices to increase by a whopping 90 percent.

Puentes/Bridges group trip to Mexico January 2019

This Puentes/Bridges group traveled to Mexico in January 2019 to visit families of individuals that have worked on dairy farms in the Driftless area. / Photo courtesy Puentes/Bridges

Mercedes Falk, the nonprofit’s current director, recently returned from a trip to Mexico in January 2019. She and eight others – dairy farmers, community members, and one journalist – made the multi-day trek through several villages of Veracruz, meeting families of immigrant workers back home in Wisconsin. Traveling in a 10-passenger van driven by Stan Linder, a dairy farmer from Stockholm, Wisconsin, the group enjoyed meals of tacos and tamales, hot coffee in homemade ceramic mugs, and authentic conversations about life in both Veracruz and the Midwest.

“Spending time with these families is the most important part of the trip,” Mercedes says. “It really helps farmers understand how their employees operate.”

Mercedes worked as a special education teacher in Milwaukee before moving to rural western Wisconsin to work on a farm.

“I became so fascinated with growing food. But, I was disturbed that I didn’t know anything about where it came from,” she says. Eventually, she left teaching and got involved in the local food scene in Milwaukee, working on a small farm and in a restaurant.

“When I moved to Fountain City, there was a huge learning curve,” she says. “But, I became more self-sufficient and confident navigating challenges and finding solutions.”

That’s when the opportunity to lead Puentes/Bridges came up. John Rosenow, another dairy farmer who’s on the nonprofit’s board, and former director Shaun suggested she think about stepping up to the challenge. Now, three years later, Mercedes balances her time visiting various dairy farms where she helps with interpreting needs between farmers and their employees.

Puentes/Bridges’ paradigm of fostering relationships fits so well with dairy farms, like Mike and Kris’ Ingvalson Hilltop Farm, because of their family-owned business models.

“We have found that our stories are not that different,” Mercedes said in a recent interview with Wisconsin Public Radio. “We share similar hopes and dreams. Once people get the chance to know someone who looks different from them, they’re not as hesitant to reach out because they realize there are many more similarities than they would have thought.”

As Mike plans to pass down the farm to the third generation – his daughter and son-in-law – he knows that with help from his employees, the legacy of hard work and integrity will continue.

As for Puentes/Bridges, the journeys to Mexico to meet families of employees will also go on.

“I hope we can continue nurturing these relationships,” Mercedes says. “We share a lot more than we think.”


Passionate about storytelling, Maggie has spent much of her career interviewing fascinating folks and telling their stories. When she’s not writing, she’s sipping an iced vanilla coffee or exploring the Driftless Region with her husband and three small kids.


Learn more about Puentes/Bridges:

www.puentesbridges.org

www.facebook.com/puentesbridges

www.wpr.org/tags/puentes-bridges

www.jsonline.com – “Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Build Bridges”

progressive.org – “The Houses that Milk Built”

*The Economic Impacts of Immigrant Labor on U.S. Dairy Farms

Center for North American Studies

May 2019 Calendar!

It’s May! One of our favorite months! (Lots of birthdays around here…) There’s lots of fun to be had for you all too – start your planning with this handy-dandy May 2019 calendar (you can download the pdf here).  XO, Inspire(d)

LOOKING FOR MORE DETAILS ABOUT EVENTS ON THE CALENDARS?
Check out these great May 2019 activities! In chronological order, each event’s number coincides with its number on the calendar!

10.  May 1: Decorah Farmers Market (formerly known as Winneshiek Farmers Market) opens for the season! Every Saturday 8-11am, and Wednesday 3-6pm through October! Below the Oneota Coop / parking lot, Decorah. www.winneshiekfarmersmarket.com or Facebook for info

11. May 3: Western swing-gypsy jazz trio Hot Club of Cowtown at Potter Auditorium, Chatfield Center for the Arts. $20-25 in advance, +$5 at the door. 7:30pm. www.chatfieldarts.org

12. May 4: Garlic Mustard Pull: Join Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to help restore the native woodland at Heritage Valley by removing invasive garlic mustard. All ages welcome. www.inhf.org

13. May 11: Decorah Pride is a celebration of our LGBTQ+ community. Parade! Festival! Dance! May 11, all day – more information at Decorahpride.com

14. May 11-12: Sweet 16 Farm’s Starter Plant Sale! Get your vegetable garden off to an amazing start with our lovingly, locally grown starter plants. Beautiful Houston, MN. Details – sweet16farm.com

15. May 17: Ultra Mega Mega! Spring studio open house for the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Luther College. 6-9pm in the Center for the Arts. Info – luther.edu

16. May 18: Celebrate the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at Potter Auditorium, Chatfield Center for the Arts. $30 in advance, +$5 at door. 7:30pm. www.chatfieldarts.org

UPCOMING:

17. June 1: RUN the CRATER 50k, 25k, 10k, 5k, 1mi.,  Mental Toughness Required. Kids 1mi. Free for kids 13 & under. Register at www.DDTR.us

18. Decorah Municipal Band – Lawn Chair Night in front of the Winneshiek County Courthouse, 7 pm. New players welcome! E-mail decorahmunicipalband@gmail.com.

Q&A with Mollie B!

INTRO AND INTERVIEW BY BENJI NICHOLS

Life in the Driftless just wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for all of the dance bands. Sunday afternoons filled with polkas, two-steps… a schottische here and there – gracefully (or maybe not so gracefully!) sliding across the well-worn wooden floors of the Upper Midwest.

It would be easy to call them “old-time” dance bands, but that would be wildly inaccurate, particularly in the case of Spring Grove, Minnesota’s own Mollie Busta (aged 39!). Having grown up singing and playing – eventually more than one instrument at once – with her Dad and family in the Jim Busta Band, then leading the way through middle, high school, and Luther College music programs, Mollie has become a preeminent Polka Front-Woman on a national (and international) level. You’ll hardly know it when you meet her, as her personality radiates not only great music, but an honest and authentic love of people and the dance floor.

Mollie B. growing up surrounded by music

Mollie B. shared a variety of images of her life growing up surrounded by music. Photos courtesy Mollie B.

It’s quite possible you’ve seen Mollie B with the Jim Busta Band, or Squeezebox (with her husband, Ted Lange), or on the “Mollie B Polka Party” (most recently aired on RFD-TV), or, perhaps, in the Warner Brothers movie The Mule, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.

Well, we’re here to tell you that your chance to slide across the floor is just weeks away when Mollie B, SqueezeBox, and the Jim Busta Band play the Spring Grove Fest Building, May 11, 2019 from 1-5pm. The event will help celebrate local non-profit Giants of the Earth Heritage Center’s 10-year anniversary.

Inspire(d)’s Benji Nichols caught with with Mollie B. to ask a few fun questions!

Read on, and mark your calendars to see her in Spring Grove this May!

Mollie B. and Squeezebox with Clint Eastwood

Mollie B. and Squeezebox pose with Clint Eastwood after filming their scene in the Warner Brothers movie, The Mule. Photo courtesy Mollie B.

I: It’s been quite a year since the release of The Mule with Clint Eastwood. Any favorite moments stemming from your musical feature and on-screen appearance?

Mollie  B: The premiere, itself, with Diane Wiest three seats down from me, Tim Moore two rows in front of me, Clint Eastwood and his family behind me, and Toby Keith to the right side of me, across the aisle.

I: We’ve had the great fortune to watch your continued success over the past decade or two from afar, but what’s the best part of coming ‘home’ to Southeast Minnesota?

Mollie B: The people – I have always loved the people, particularly my long-time friends! And the beautiful country side.

I:  We know you grew up in a “Polka Family”, but do you remember your first-ever polka dance, or have a specific early memory?

Mollie B: I loved dancing the polka a lot more than being on stage. Yes, it was fine to make the music, but dancing to it made my heart soar!!! I was simply on Cloud Nine every time I could go to a festival, or even a dance. I didn’t realize how unique my childhood was. Easily two-thirds of my weekends growing up were at dances and festivals. I danced with my siblings, mom, polka friends, and even lots of people I didn’t know. The joy this music and dancing brought to me was simply indescribable. My favorite festival from age four until 13 was Gibbon Polka Days. It took place the last weekend of July in Gibbon, Minnesota. There were times I would arrive at the festival on a Thursday and dance every day through Sunday. It may sound a bit stretched, but I really danced for 12 hours – each day – then I’d sleep on the grounds in our tent or rented pop-up camper. There were up to six locations with polka music on the grounds and as soon as one band finished playing a set of polkas, my brother and I would RUN to the next location where the band was playing polkas and would dance until they finished the set of polkas, then run again. This pattern would last for 12 hours every day. Our breaks were only for food about one time a day – an ice cream cone – and for the daily 4:00 parade, in which I usually played drums or trumpet in.

Mollie B.'s unique childhood of growing up at dances and festivals

“I didn’t realize how unique my childhood was. Easily two-thirds of my weekends growing up were at dances and festivals. I danced with my siblings, mom, polka friends, and even lots of people I didn’t know.” – Mollie B.

I: How did you ever discover you could play multiple instruments at the same time?!? It seems like some sort of sorcery!

Mollie B: Sorcery – ha! I have never heard it called that 🙂 In all honesty, it’s not difficult. I already was playing piano with two hands, why couldn’t I play two different instruments with two hands? So I did. Yes, when I am playing in the key of G in my left hand on the piano; my lips, breath, and fingers are playing in key of A on my trumpet, since the trumpet is a Bb instrument.

It was NEVER my dad suggesting any of my music ‘craziness.” He hired me as his trumpet player when I was 11, for in his eyes, that is what the band needed. Of course, I saw things differently. When I was eight, it was my idea to play my keyboard in the band for I thought the band needed it. When I was 14, it was my idea to play sax and clarinet, again because the band needed variety. Also, when I was 14, I felt the band needed to put on more of a show, so I added a little choreography. And yes, when I was 16, I really confused my dad by bringing a keyboard with me. I told my dad to trust me when he made the comment that he hired me to play trumpet, not piano.  So, I did it – I played my first gig on piano and trumpet – at the same time – when I was 16-years-old. And, the instruments kept multiplying. But I must admit, after playing three, the rest simply made sense.

I: We know you spend an incredible amount of time on the road – do you have a standout location that is somewhere you are always hoping to get to (or get back to!)?

Mollie B: I want to get to New Zealand someday – but I don’t need to play there. I have been told Brazil has wonderful music, and I would like to experience that. I would jump at the chance to return to the Dominican Republic with Tony Guzman and an ensemble again (I went twice with the Luther College Jazz Orchestra) And lastly, I play often in Texas, but since my first time there in 2009 – I have loved Texas. It’s like the Midwest, but warmer.  And I get called ma’am and miss down there, even by perfect strangers and long-time friends.  Who doesn’t love good old-fashioned manners?

I: Butter, sugar, or brown sugar on your Lefse?

Mollie B: Brown Sugar 🙂


Benji Nichols met Mollie B around 1994, thanks to the amazing Emily Engen, also from Spring Grove. Benji met Emily because of one Paul Scott, then owner of KRDI Radio in Decorah, IA – where somehow we were hired to be on-air announcers while we were in high school. Ain’t life funny? Now go dance a polka!


See you on the dance floor!

Mollie B with Squeezebox and the Jim Busta Band
Saturday, May 11, 2019, 1-5 pm – Spring Grove Fest Building
Tickets are $15 at the door, and $12 in advance at
www.mollieb.com or by calling 507-498-5070.

But wait, there’s more!

• Come learn the polka-hop (and other fun dances) with Mollie B and the Squeezebox team. There will be lessons at the Spring Grove Fest Building from 11:30 to 12:30, with dance instructor Patsy Linehan.

• All students 12 and under get free admission to the show, & teenagers are $5 (with a paid adult). Luther College student admission is also $5 (must present Student ID).

• There will be food and drink for sale at the Fest Building.