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How to be a good dairy mentor

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 June 2016

Skilled people and frequent, open communication can be what it takes to turn an on-farm apprenticeship into something great.

Nadia Alber, co-director of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy & Livestock Farmers, said a regular meeting time, such as over the lunch hour, is very important. “Communication is key,” she said.

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At the 2016 GrassWorks Conference, held annually in Wisconsin, Alber and Kristina Ralph, Gen-O program coordinator at Organic Valley, presented information about mentors (also known as Master Dairy Graziers) and apprentices within the nationally accredited Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA).

DGA is a two-year program in managed-grazing dairy production that combines on-farm employment and mentoring under an experienced dairy grazier with related coursework.

Apprenticeship differs from internships, which may be paid or unpaid and are highly variable in content. Apprenticeship is a formal system of education that has a legal status and a well-established development process with agency oversight.

The curriculum for an apprenticeship, which is developed by stakeholders in an industry in order to serve the needs of that industry, is comprehensive and standardized to guide the training process between the “master” and the “apprentice”.

Ralph offered the following general definition of a mentor: a partner in an evolving, learning relationship focused on meeting goals and objectives; a counselor or teacher. A mentee or intern: a person learning a trade from a skilled and experienced mentor.

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Ralph said on-farm mentoring is becoming more and more important as farm numbers decline. A person interested in farming may not necessarily have a family member to learn from, so finding a mentor can be very beneficial. “Experienced farmers have a plethora of knowledge,” she said.

Even when the mentor-intern or master-apprentice relationship is between family members, it is sometimes a good idea to create a formal agreement including setting goals, evaluation and scheduling.

There are a number of things someone should consider before deciding to become a mentor, Ralph said. Qualities and skills that make for a good mentor include:

  • Enjoys farming
  • Has a successful operation
  • Sufficient experience (10-plus years)
  • Patience and open-mindedness needed to teach others
  • Enjoys sharing knowledge
  • Good or excellent communication skills
  • Ability to listen
  • Ability to balance constructive criticism and compliments
  • Good organizational skills
  • Respectful of others

Alber said it is important to not make assumptions about how much knowledge someone has on a certain topic.

“Interns are not employees. Allow for extra time to explain all tasks. Repetition may be necessary for unfamiliar skills; never assume the intern knows. Farming is hard, but don’t overwork your interns. Good communication can avoid conflict,” Ralph said.

When pressed for time, spending 10 minutes explaining how to do something that would only take you a minute to do yourself can be frustrating and stressful. Planning must include enough time for explanations.

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“An intern is not just a hired hand,” Alber said. “You will need to expect some things to take longer than usual because you will have to teach and explain.”

Even if someone has previous farm experience, that does not necessarily mean he or she knows how you want something to be done on your farm.

It can be helpful to think of interns and apprentices as learners rather than just employees. A mentor’s role is to explain everything on the farm, and if it is new material for the apprentice it may have to be explained more than once. On-farm tasks for an intern or an apprentice should be diversified. Even if the person is most interested in a certain part of the farm, he or she should have a chance to experience everything.

Alber said it can be very important for the mentor or Master Dairy Grazier to encourage questions, especially at first. An unsure person may be afraid to ask questions for fear of appearing inadequate or ignorant.

Open, non-judgmental communication is very important. Even if the intern or apprentice is a family member, regular meetings such as a daily coffee break or another set, regular meeting time is essential.

When matching potential interns or apprentices with mentors or masters, it is important for each person to create a list of goals, skills and expectations, and then make sure you fully understand the other person’s list.

“Decide how long the internship should be and define objectives for each month of internship. Each week, develop daily schedules that align with monthly goals. Evaluate progress at least weekly. Design and sign a contract,” Ralph said.

It is very important for mentors or masters to share a farm’s financials. Alber said, “It’s important to talk about cash flow. The number one thing that does a business in – even with a good business plan – is cash flow.”

Alber surveyed participants in Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, which started in Wisconsin and is now nationwide. Several apprentices responded strongly, including these comments:

“I never looked at my master’s (mentor’s) financials; this would have been very educational…”

“Because of the way my master’s farm was set up, lunchtime conversations about profit and loss happened every month. Everything was put on the table, the books were completely open. This was great even though it made them vulnerable.”

Other tips they offered included:

  • Don’t make assumptions based on gender. Many women are just as physically capable of hard labor as a man.

  • Be up front about future plans for your farm.

  • If there are other mentors or masters in the area, trade apprentices for a day or a week to experience different ways of doing things. Or visit other farms and attend events like pasture walks together.

  • Learn about the three main learning styles (visual, audio or kinesthetic) to help your apprentice learn in ways that are easier for him or her.  PD

Ralph co-authored a University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems handbook, “A Mentor-Intern Handbook for Dairy and Livestock Farmers.” 

More information can be found at Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer in Waterville, Iowa.

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