Joe Wright of the 1,200-cow V&W Farms in Avon Park, Florida, has been in the media spotlight lately – a little too much in the spotlight, as it turns out. Wright, who is president of the Southeast Milk cooperative, was interviewed for a Feb. 22 Los Angeles Times article on immigration. One of his quotes the article used was, “We cannot milk cows without Hispanic labor, period.”
How did your interview with the L.A. Times come about?
The inquiry came through NMPF [National Milk Producers Federation]. They asked if it was okay to give my name to an L.A. Times reporter as a producer who was willing to talk about immigration.
Why did you consent to do the interview?
We have to get something done on immigration. It is a tough issue, but the status quo is unacceptable. The Democrats want to let everyone in and give them citizenship and the Republicans want to let no one in and pretend immigrants are not needed. Business people are afraid to speak out, but we have to accurately describe the insanity of the current situation.
Were you nervous about it? What did you do to prepare?
Not really nervous. I did try to think in advance how to answer certain questions. I wanted to be truthful but not reckless.
Have you done other interviews before? Please explain.
Yes. I am a lawyer by training and actually practiced law for six years before coming into the dairy business. The dairy is my wife’s family business. I have been president of our Florida-based dairy cooperative, Southeast Milk Inc., since it was formed in 1998.
I have done lots of public speaking. I even ran for and was elected to our city council for one term, so I have been in the public spotlight before. I have never had “media training” because I have had lots of experience. However, this is one instance that I wished I had some training or experience in how to deal with irrational kooks.
[Editor’s note: Since the Times article was published, Wright says that he has been receiving angry letters from both liberals and conservatives.]
What was most odd or surprising to you about the reporter’s visit/questions?
She was a very pleasant lady to deal with. She brought an almost-local photographer with her from the Orlando Sentinel, which must be a related company. I did not know about the photographer in advance. The photographer actually understood something about cows.
The writer was a city girl all the way – educated in Boston. The way she set up the story – a Republican who wants to get rid of the safety net programs – was not really how I thought I expressed the situation.
What I really said was we can have this one of two ways: either a social safety net with immigrant guest workers, or end welfare and make it so people have to work in order to eat.
It really does boil down to that basic proposition. But I am not complaining about her story. The people who are upset would have been upset about any story on this issue.
What was the most difficult question you had to answer? Why?
She wanted to know some stories about individual workers. There is always the right-to-privacy issue. I did not feel it was proper for her to interview individual workers.
This really was my story. With the radical-group reaction I am dealing with, it would be unfair to involuntarily thrust others into the limelight.
They did not bargain for such a thing. However, she did meet some employees and spent time in the milking parlor with them. I did share some general examples, like how I had loaned money to a couple of employees for them to get legal help for expiring visas.
Have you made any new connections or had any interesting experiences as a result of the story being published?
The ironic thing is that at the same time the wackos are hassling me, I am receiving thank yous from business people – most of whom I know. I’ve received a note and a copy of the reprint that appeared in the St. Paul, Minnesota, paper from someone I never heard of.
I have had a request to autograph a copy. I have had several elected officials – Republicans, both state and federal – who have reached out to thank me for speaking out on the subject.
I also received a very nice message sent to our milk promotion group asking them to forward the message to me where an individual with an Anglo surname thanked me for the general proposition of speaking out in favor of immigrants in the context of our nation being a nation of immigrants.
The message went on to state that there are at least as many people applauding my efforts as there are vilifying me. It was just nice to receive that support.
Overall, was it worthwhile to do the interview?
Wow. This is a tough one. If we get actual federal legislation in a timely fashion, then yes. But I am worried about the lunatic fringe out there. They may not be done harassing me. NMPF tells me they will use the story with elected officials as an example why business people are staying low-key on this, i.e. the fear of harassment.
What advice would you have for other dairy producers who may be doing interviews?
Feel comfortable in your own skin before you jump in. Make sure you are absolutely committed to the issue. In today’s time, people are crazy. My own political hero is Ronald Reagan, but I do not think he could get the Republican nomination today. PD