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GrassWorks Apprenticeship Program: A new career path for beginning farmers

Bridget O’Meara Published on 31 December 2010

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Despite the economic and cultural significance of dairy farming in Wisconsin, the state continues to lose small and mid-sized dairy farms. New farmers are not entering the industry at rates that offset the loss of retiring producers.

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In a state where the average age of primary operators is 55, the question of how to bring new farmers into dairy farming is becoming increasingly urgent.

The GrassWorks Apprenticeship Program answers this question by establishing a new institutionally supported career path for beginning farmers.

Formal Apprenticeship is a framework that the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (WDWD) has utilized for decades in other industries.

Apprenticeship is a system of work-based learning that fulfills the needs of industry by preparing workers for skilled trades by combining on-the-job training with classroom instruction. An "Apprentice" is a highly skilled worker whose qualifications are recognized and respected throughout an industry.

GrassWorks, the statewide producer-run grazing organization, is the industry sponsor for a new “Dairy Grazier Apprenticeship,” which combines accredited classroom education through the Wisconsin Technical College System and on-farm employment under a Master Farmer who has received training in mentoring an apprentice.

The program offers a comprehensive approach to farmer education, utilizing existing infrastructure and expertise, to increase the entry rate and retention of farmers in Wisconsin’s rapidly changing and volatile dairy industry.

Beginning farmers who enter the program become Apprentices, then Journeymen and finally Masters in a career path similar to that of electricians, bricklayers, plumbers and skilled workers in other industries.

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Like skilled workers in other apprenticeships, Dairy Grazier Apprentices not only achieve a high level of competency but also receive compensation for their work on the farm as well as for related classroom hours.

In addition, as Journeyman Dairy Graziers, they will have established relationships necessary to become successful entrepreneurs, co-owners and/or managers.

Experienced farmers, Master Graziers, will gain an apprentice who contributes skilled labor, managerial assistance and the potential for future business partnerships. As part of the curriculum, both Master Graziers and Dairy Grazier Apprentices will have an opportunity to explore alternative investment/divestment models, including milk-share partnerships, spin-off farms and transition of ownership.

Veteran dairy grazier and former GrassWorks Board President, Joseph Tomandl, III, of Medford, Wisconsin, (pictured at top right with his son) is Project Coordinator for the Apprenticeship Program. His own spin-off farm will serve as a prototype of one possible alternative investment model.

By using managed grazing, Tomandl was able to turn a non-producing start up farm into profitable seasonable operation. But like many other successful graziers, he found few opportunities for investment and growth (biological constraints, such as the distance a cow can walk to the milking facility, limit the size of grazing farms).

In 2010, he purchased a second spin-off farm. The new farm will be operated under the management of his long-time employee for a share a salary, equity in cattle and/or a percentage of the milk check, while some costs (such for as equipment, feed, seed and other inputs) will be shared.

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According to Tom Kriegl of the Center for Dairy Profitability, managed grazing farms have the best net farm income from farm operations (NFIFO) of any dairy management system. Kriegl has found that managed grazing dairy farms retain $0.25 of every earned dollar compared to $0.14 /dollar on confinement dairy farms.

This kind of efficiency and profitability has made managed grazing a key practice for beginning dairy farmers, while the good health and longevity of grazing cows makes alternative investment models attractive to established producers.

“With so many farms on the edge of retirement, there’s an opportunity to transition the industry to a new generation of profitable and sustainable dairy producers. The window of opportunity is immediate and for only about a decade,” says Tomandl. “The GrassWorks Apprenticeship Program provides unprecedented training and support for new dairy producers and could result in a paradigm shift for farmer education as well as industry growth.”

Formal Apprenticeship in managed grazing dairy farming is unprecedented in the United States, but successful examples can be found elsewhere, in Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries.

In New Zealand, especially, formal farmer career training through well-integrated, institutionalized structures has been extremely successful in generating new farmers and has resulted in steady, sustainable growth of grass-based dairy farms.

In 2010, GrassWorks was awarded a $96,000 Development Grant through the Nation Institute for Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to initiate the Apprenticeship Program and is seeking additional grant funding through NIFA in 2011.

However, once a successful track record has been established, the program has the potential to be self-sustaining and self-replicating. Individual established dairy farmers, investment groups, marketing cooperatives and land conservation groups may all contribute to the growth of the Apprenticeship Program and the grass-based dairy industry. PD

To find out more about the GrassWorks Apprenticeship Program, visit www.grassworks.org or contact Joe Tomandl, III directly at or (715) 560-0389.

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