Linda Vang didn’t realize how much she missed being around Hmong elders until she attended a dinner at the Vang C&C Farm.
The UW-Whitewater student, who is Hmong herself, enjoyed being around their wisdom and hospitality again earlier this month.
The dinner on her relative’s farm in Jefferson was not just a family get-together, however. It was a farm-to-table dinner and conversation event that are part of a larger statewide project headquartered at UW-W.
Vang worked with her relative’s farm as part of the Lands We Share initiative. The program is collecting histories and making presentations to tell the culturally diverse stories of farming in Wisconsin.
“I would really like people to learn that farming isn’t a stereotype of a typical white family or, like, a corporation that’s passed down from generation to generation,” she said. “There are so many different types of farming, so many different ethnicities.”
The interactive exhibit within the Wisconsin Farms Oral History Project is traveling the state to start conversations, said director and UW-W history professor James Levy. The Lands We Share tour is a collaboration of UW System campuses in Eau Claire, Oshkosh, Madison, Milwaukee and Whitewater
On those campuses, the projects have included work from more than 300 students (including “dozens” in Whitewater) and 25 faculty and staff members, according to a news release. They have conducted about 400 oral history interviews.
The Lands We Share exhibit first premiered in Oshkosh on Oct. 10 and is currently at the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson through early January before it moves to Johnson Creek.
After that, from Jan. 28 to Feb. 10, the exhibit will be on the UW-W campus.
Following the 2016 presidential election, Levy said he noticed most people were not talking or listening to one another.
“Farming captures sort of red, rural areas, but it also captures the urban area,” he said. “Our focus on race and ethnicity allows us to look at other kinds of farms and smaller farms and farmers of color.
“We thought we’d do this traveling conversation tour.”
Levy said he came from teaching in New York City, and he noticed that talking about race was “tricky.” He first came to UW-W in 2011 when he was hired to build a public history program.
Public history, he said, first came about in the 1970s, but it has taken off in the last 10 or so years. The concept is, as it’s named, about taking the skills of a historian and bringing them out in public—outside the classroom to galleries, museums, historical societies, the web, films and more.
So Levy wanted to build a project that looked at farming and food production through the lens of race and ethnicity in Wisconsin. The project could bring about more conversations about family history and ethnic identity.
Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong population in the nation, he said. It also features “fascinating” indigenous farming, and Milwaukee as the “center of urban agriculture, arguably, in the world.”
“So, I thought, ‘We have this amazing state,’” Levy said. “For farming, it’s incredibly diverse.”
The Lands We Share is focusing on five farms. Levy said these include:
Students from UW-W have had several responsibilities, such as recording oral histories, taking photos and conducting archival research. A public relations class broke into groups and created campaigns for Levy and the project this semester.
Vang, who is from the small town of Berlin about 20 miles west of Oshkosh, is putting together an interactive map.
Another student, Catherine Lee, said she does some behind-the-scenes research, some website and tech work as well as public relations. Lee is a sophomore from Kohler, which is near Sheboygan.
Most of her research is about the Dettmann Dairy Farms near Johnson Creek. She has investigated genealogy of the German family and visited the register of deeds office in Jefferson to “connect the pieces” of land being passed on.
Before this project, Lee said, she had no experience in farming.
“I just love learning more about that lifestyle and how diverse it is,” she said. “And the food was great.”
It’s common for people to assume that not being farmers means farming doesn’t affect their lives, Lee said. People also have a “narrow view” of what farming is.
The project also stands to inform others about where their food comes from, which Vang said is important.
For example, Vang said, digging into farming and agriculture can lead someone to learning about what pesticides are used and if food is genetically modified or organic.
“It’s important to know that,” she said.
The first certified organic Hmong farm in Wisconsin was the Vang C&C Farm in 2012, according to the oral history project’s work on Cheu and Chia Vang’s farm.
But long before that, Cheu Vang was in the northern hills of Laos, where his family had a history of slash-and-burn farming.
Eventually, conflicts between feuding forces made the family flee.
The Vangs came to the United States in 1975 and settled in Jefferson County in 2005. They bought a farm from the Hake family, who were one of the original settlers of Jefferson County, according to the history.
“Two worlds came together when the Vangs bought the land to start a new farming tradition: The Vang farm was a little bit of Wisconsin and a little bit of Laos,” the project states.
The Vangs’ commitment to organic farming comes from their roots in Laos.
Sitting in a room on the fifth floor of Laurentide Hall in Whitewater, Linda Vang said she had not done an oral history before this project, but she wanted experience interviewing.
She said she connected with the Vang farm in part because it feels like the small community where she grew up.
“In our history and in our culture, agriculture is really important,” she said. “I really love what I’ve been learning, and I really love what we’ve been doing.”
Vang said she believes some Hmong people farm to cope with the trauma the group has faced. After she learned so much, it’s a question she still hopes to ask her own mother.
“I’ll ask her next time I go home,” she said.
And on her drive back, she will pass the Vang C&C Farm.
Lacey Reichwald recalls a community forum in 2015 after Whitewater’s only full-service grocery store said it planned to close its doors.
“I remember angry people pointing at city officials and saying that someone needs to do something about this,” she said.
Instead of looking to someone else to fix the problem, Reichwald jumped in with both feet.
“It occurred to me I can do something about this,” she said.
Today, the community has taken important steps to bring a cooperatively owned and full-service grocery to the city under the leadership of 36-year-old Reichwald.
She is president of the Whitewater Grocery Co. Board of Directors.
The wife and mother also owns two successful Whitewater businesses, The SweetSpot Café and The SweetSpot Bakehouse, and believes in the power of people working together to improve their community.
“If I want to live in a vibrant community, it’s my responsibility to help create that community,” Reichwald said. “You find time for what’s important to you.”
She received the Making Democracy Work Award from the League of Women Voters in Whitewater for her work with the grocery project and community engagement.
In addition, she has been a featured speaker at community-owned grocery events in Wisconsin and other states.
“If I say that she is a linchpin to building a community-owned grocery store in Whitewater, it might be an understatement,” said Anne Hartwick, secretary of the board of directors for the Whitewater Grocery Co.
“We’ve often been cited among our peers as the fastest-growing rural-startup food co-op in the nation,” Hartwick said. “Much of our accelerated progress can be attributed to Lacey’s leadership.
“Her ability to rally people to a cause, inspire them to think beyond themselves and empower them to tackle a tough issue cooperatively, all while running a successful restaurant and bakery, is simply nothing less than extraordinary,” Hartwick added.
Albert Stanek and his family were some of the first responders to the community grocery membership effort. Stanek also is a Whitewater grocery board member and chairs the site-selection committee.
“Lacey’s experience as an entrepreneur is invaluable,” he said. “But her enthusiasm, attention to detail and leadership skills are a huge part of the success of the effort to date.”
Reichwald is a born doer.
“We are all in the business of changing the world,” she said. “It’s overwhelming and seemingly impossible when you look at the big picture. But when you look at the ripple you create and how it spreads, it’s far more manageable.”
Reichwald moved to Whitewater in 2006 to finish her degree at UW-Whitewater. She wanted to be a professor who taught communication. She immediately fell in love with the kindness and openness of the community.
When Reichwald graduated, she was working as a barista at The SweetSpot coffee shop. The owner asked if she was interested in buying the business.
Then 26, Reichwald brought in some silent investors and took ownership on New Year’s Eve 2008 during the Great Recession.
Foremost, she wanted to create a community hub that sells coffee and food.
“I always wanted a place where people could hang out, like that coffee shop on ‘Friends,’ where you can have a community conversation,” Reichwald said.
In the last decade, the business has expanded three times.
About five years ago, she, her mother, Karen Moline, and a business partner opened a second Whitewater location, which is a bakery and coffee shop.
Reichwald believes that both places serve food and a higher purpose because they make people feel welcome, give back to the community and try to “make our corner of the world a better place.”
She and her mom have 38 employees, most of them part time.
“I think of everyone who works here as an emerging professional probably because I see how far I have come,” Reichwald said.
No one told Reichwald to work on Whitewater’s grocery problem, but she thought she could get the ball rolling by doing some research.
Soon, she attended community meetings. She met with the managers of Sentry, the grocery closing its doors. She talked to local and regional grocers.
In addition, she read books about grocery stores. She started a Facebook group to discuss the grocery problem. She added 50 of her friends, but the site quickly grew to 500, then 800.
She did all this with the support of her husband, Dustin.
Early in 2016, she and three others traveled to Indiana for a food co-op start-up conference sponsored by the Food Co-Op Initiative of Savage, Minnesota.
The Whitewater Community Development Authority paid for Reichwald and the others to attend so they could research solutions to the grocery problem. One of the possible solutions was a food co-op or a cooperatively-owned grocery store.
“We quickly learned that we were the only group there, and maybe the only group in the history of the conference, to have been funded by our city and to have a city council representative and member of our community development team present,” she said. “We had already accomplished a public/private partnership that was unheard of.”
The Food Co-op Initiative has helped hundreds of co-ops get started by offering a model for development.
Members or owners join the co-op with a financial commitment. This not only raises startup funds, but it also shows local support, Reichwald said.
The community’s goal is to have 1,000 owners by the time the store opens, and Whitewater has more than 500.
The group is about halfway there in terms of owners, but it still has a ways to go in terms of site selection, financing the project and hiring a general manager.
“We are looking at three different locations and finalizing the feasibility process,” Reichwald said. “We are about to do our final, formal market study.”
A board of seven members does the bulk of the work with the help of consultants.
“I’m willing to spend as much time as needed on the fact-finding stage,” Reichwald said. “I don’t want to just build a store. I want to build the right store.”
Reichwald believes everyone has the power to make a difference.
“When I hear people say, ‘Who is going to do something about this?’ they are giving away their power,” she said. “A lot of people don’t think they have the knowledge or the time. But we are all learning as we grow.”
She said an army of volunteers and advocates has changed the conversation in Whitewater.
“Instead of people standing around asking, ‘Who’s going to fix this?’ we have people standing up and saying, ‘I’m going to fix this,’” Reichwald said.
“Some pay their ownership fees and wait. Some jump in with the heavy lifting. Some cheer them on.
“But they are all involved in some way,” she said. “They are all empowered, creating their own ripple effect that is spreading. We didn’t have to change the world to make a difference.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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America’s retailers, struggling to fill jobs, have been raising pay to try to keep and attract enough employees. Now, some stores want something in return: A more efficient worker.
To that end, retailers, fast food restaurants and other lower-wage employers are boosting investment in technology and redesigning stores. Walmart is automating its truck unloading to require fewer workers on loading docks. Kohl’s is using more hand-held devices to speed check-outs and restock shelves. McDonald’s is increasingly replacing cashiers with self-service kiosks to free up workers for table service.
Retail workers, though comparatively low-paid, have enjoyed some of the best wage gains in the past year. Their hourly pay rose 4.3 percent in November from a year earlier—much faster than such higher-wage industries as manufacturing, where pay rose 1.8 percent.
Walmart raised its starting pay to $11 an hour this year. Target’s minimum is $12, with plans to make it $15 by 2020. Amazon’s starting wage leapt to $15 in November. And more than 20 states have raised minimum wages above the federal $7.25 an hour. California and Washington state’s wage floors will reach $12 on Jan. 1. New York’s will be $11.80.
Even as they have absorbed higher labor costs, most retailers remain reluctant to pass them on to customers in the form of price increases. American consumers have grown increasingly insistent on bargain prices—in part a hangover from the Great Recession, in part a function of online price-comparison tools. Retailers are loath to alienate them and send them looking for alternative sellers.
“It’s extraordinarily hard for retailers to systematically raise prices,” said Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at Publicis Communications NA, a digital consulting agency. “These days, everyone’s prices are way more transparent. It’s just one click away from your super computer in your pocket.”
So unless companies are willing to eat all or part of their higher labor costs, they need to increase their workers’ efficiency. A company’s wage increase of 10 percent can be offset if its employees produce 10 percent more.
“We need ...meaningful improvements” in productivity, said Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart’s US division. “Pricing generally isn’t going up. It’s going to come down as competition intensifies.”
Though higher wages are driving retailers to make workers more efficient, cost isn’t the only factor. The companies are also under intensifying pressure to speed delivery times of online orders to compete with Amazon and please customers who expect fast delivery.
Walmart employees can now use mobile devices to check whether an item is in stock and avoid trekking to distant storerooms. The phones also send alerts when an item needs a price change and directs workers to those items.
And in a cluster of stores, Walmart has deployed robots that monitor stockpiles and can send photos of empty shelves to employees’ phones. The information is sent to a conveyer system that scans boxes being unloaded from trucks. Workers then organize the boxes for delivery to the sales floor. The system has slashed the number of people needed to unload trucks.
“When I first started working for Walmart, we would unload the truck and you would have associates running all over the backroom trying to find out where to put things,” said Ty Ford, who has worked at Walmart in Houston for eight years. “It wasn’t organized in any way.”
One technology being tested is “smart glasses,” which display information on the lenses so workers can identify items from online orders for curbside pickup. The glasses can identify which items to pick, thereby saving time that would be spent looking at phones.
To try to raise productivity, retailers are turning mainly to technology rather that hounding employees to work harder. But pressure does creep in: At Target, workers who carry online orders to shoppers’ cars now hear a honking horn on their devices, instead of a generic bell, to signify that customers are waiting.
Jaana Remes, an economist at McKinsey Global Institute, noted that after the Great Recession, stagnant pay reduced the incentive for employers to invest in labor-saving technology. Now, that’s starting to reverse. Remes pointed out that labor-saving technology is more common in countries where pay is higher. Self-serve restaurants, for example, are more prevalent in Scandinavia and Japan than in the United States.
“When have you seen grocery baggers in Europe?” Remes said. “We still have them in the U.S.”
But perhaps not for long. For this year’s holiday shopping season, some Target employees began using mobile devices to check out shoppers. Under pressure from online retailers, Target is also investing in technology to transform its stores into shipping hubs to cut costs and speed deliveries.
CEO Brian Cornell said in November that the company wants to achieve efficiencies to help offset the cost of higher pay and other investments. So Target has redesigned the back rooms of most of its 1,800 stores to shave seconds off picking and packing and to accelerate online shipments.
During a recent tour of a Target in Edison, New Jersey, workers undertook specialized tasks in assembly line operations in a space the size of about 12 of its parking spaces. Once filled, carts are placed on marked spots within arm’s reach of workers who pack shipments. Apps reveal how much tape to use for each box. Packers use foot pedals to dispense inflated air pillows to cushion items when boxed.
It’s unclear whether retailers’ efforts will be enough to boost the overall productivity of America’s workforce, which has been mired in anemic growth since the Great Recession. Productivity—output per hour worked—is critical to rising living standards. An economy can expand only as fast as its working age population and the growth in worker productivity.
Though U.S. productivity has picked up a bit this year, it grew just 1.3 percent in the July-September quarter from a year earlier. That’s only about half the pace of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Economists have suggested several theories to explain chronically weak productivity growth. Some say the U.S. is just less innovative than in the past. Others think the government has trouble measuring the impact of free or low-cost inventions, like search engines and music streaming services, and that workers are actually more productive than we think.
Many economists also note that it can take time for businesses to determine how best to capitalize on new technologies. Retailers are still experimenting, for example, with mobile devices, which have been in use for at least a decade. Personal computers began appearing in offices in the 1980s but didn’t accelerate productivity until much later.
Kohl’s is just now stepping up its use of mobile technology to help employees restock shelves more efficiently and equipping some with iPad devices for faster checkouts.
“We know that there will be continued headwinds from wage pressures,” Bruce Besanko, Kohl’s chief financial officer, told industry analysts last month. “And so we know that we needed to find more ways” to cut costs.
To save on labor costs, McDonald’s has installed self-service kiosks in 4,000 of its U.S. restaurants this year. All told, about half its roughly 14,000 U.S. restaurants now include them.
“When you’ve got your two major lines—food and labor—both with inflationary increases, that puts pressure on the bottom line,” McDonald’s CEO Stephen Easterbrook said in October.
Mooyah, a hamburger chain with 80 restaurants mostly in the South, is responding to higher wages by reconfiguring its new restaurants to enable cooks to function like basketball players—pivoting on one foot when necessary but mostly remaining in place. During peak hours, this system is intended to enable five employees to do work that now requires up to nine. (Mooyah is owned by the private equity firm Balmoral Funds.)
“They need to do everything without steps,” said Michael Mabry, Mooyah’s chief operating officer.
Mabry said that because the store has had to raise pay in recent years, “we’ve got to offset that somewhere, and it can’t all flow through to the guest, because they’ll push back on pricing.”
How all this affects most workers isn’t quite clear.
Eric Hoffman, who worked at Walmart distribution centers for 13 years, is all too familiar with a darker side of companies seeking to boost productivity. Hoffman, 33, used to enjoy his job loading cases onto a shipping dock for Walmart, most recently in Winter Haven, Florida. He earned $21.90 an hour and received bonuses for exceeding production quotas.
But over the past year, he said, managers raised quotas and shortened the time available to do tasks. And there was an added pressure, too: Management, Hoffman said, told workers they had to “beat Amazon.”
“You guys don’t want to become like Kmart,” his bosses would say.
Hoffman quit his job five months ago to take an apprenticeship at an electrical company, installing equipment that pays about $10.50 per hour.
“The stress is gone,” Hoffman said.