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The Milk House: The new nomadic farmer

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 16 June 2022

I both admire and hate people who have it all figured out.

I was glad to have grown up on a dairy farm for all the same reasons as anyone else: the independence, working with animals instead of people, having more responsibility than others.

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However, it’s a lifestyle that takes sacrifice. It didn’t bother me much when I was young that we never went on many family vacations. That was part of what it meant to be farmers.

Still, the travel bug hit me in my early twenties. After going to Ireland as part of a semester abroad and experiencing a different culture, I became more curious about other places. I started to realize there was a lot to see in the world. Nonetheless, farming and travel always seemed like water and gasoline. You can only do one. That’s why I settled for moving back and forth between the farm and various foreign countries for the rest of my 20s – and in my 30s buying expensive plane tickets home twice a year.

It turns out, however, that someone else figured out a better way.

Donna Mulvenna had just sold her herd of dairy goats in Queensland, Australia, and wanted to travel the world. She hadn’t been able to take any trips while milking goats. Now that she had time, the problem was: She no longer had an income. She brainstormed which skills could earn her money on her travels, but she didn’t have experience as a tourist guide, couldn’t play an instrument and didn’t have a degree in zoology that could bring her to exotic and remote places. All she could do was milk a goat.

Ultimately, that was enough. She began to advertise herself as a professional hobby and commercial farm sitter – and within a year, her services were booked out. Farmers all over the world contacted her to look after their animals while they went on vacation or took some time off. She traveled from farm to farm in places like Vietnam, France, Great Britain, the U.S. and Australia. In the end, she was able to do the impossible: combine farming and traveling.

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In the years since Mulvenna first started her venture, farm sitting has become a more common practice. Some individuals advertise their services locally, while the internet is full of websites made by families living on the road and offering to watch animals along the way. Most countries now have official farm-sitting sites where services can be found. In some places, such as the U.S., farm sitters must be insured and bonded. Regardless of who’s looking after the animals, the old adage remains true: Where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock. Hence, it’s better if farm sitters are legally covered.

Opportunities to farm sit, as can be expected, are often limited. Many livestock owners have neighbors they feel comfortable asking to look after their holdings. Naturally, dairy farming demands intense labor and specific skills, and probably requires a relative or trustworthy hired hand to take over. Still, with a bit of hustle and internet savvy, some people with livestock experience have found a way to see new places by simply looking after a few sheep or horses. After building a list of references locally, they turn their sights to farther abroad.

In Finland, farm sitting is one of the social benefits granted to livestock farmers. As long as an owner has a minimal number of animals, he or she is entitled to 26 days of paid annual leave from the farm. The government provides funds for “farm relief workers” who step in and take care of the animals, enabling the farmer to go on vacation or take time off due to injury or sickness. If a farmer needs someone to watch the livestock more than 26 days due to getting sick or hurt, the government pays for part of the costs. This has created a side industry, as there are specific companies that work with the government to provide professional livestock care.

They always say to find something you love and then get paid for it. That’s usually easier said than done, especially in agriculture. However, don’t underestimate individual ingenuity. Some people have found a way to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to taking care of livestock and traveling the world. In the early days of human history, many farmers were nomadic, moving with their herd from one spot to another to find new grass. Now there’s a modern take on it, traveling from herd to herd to find new experiences. end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis.

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