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Life after selling the dairy farm

Peter Callan Published on 29 October 2010

The day after the auction of the cattle and equipment provides a mix of emotions for a dairyman. There is a bittersweet sense of relief that he is no longer responsible for milking and feeding his herd, but now that he has all this free time to think, he is afraid. What is in store for him in the future?

As he stands in the vacant freestall barn, he starts to wonder what will happen to him and his family now that he no longer has to be on duty 24/7. He starts to worry. What is he going to do? Maybe selling the farm was not a good idea after all. After the sale of the real estate closes, he will have 30 to 60 days left to live in the farmhouse.

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Where will he be living after that? Who is going to hire a middle-aged man who has always milked cows and worked for himself? The feelings of anxiety are natural. The dairyman is leaving his comfort zone and walking into the unknown.

In these moments of uncertainty, the dairyman must remind himself that he mastered a number of skills that enabled him to operate his farm. Older workers have four basic skills that are highly valued in the work place: loyalty, discipline, time management and maturity. Now he has to find a way to market his skills to find employment. The dairyman has to constantly remind himself that other dairy farmers have successfully changed careers and found happiness. The big question in the dairyman’s mind is how to open the door to find the new job.

A job takes up a large portion of the day. The dairyman needs to find a career where he looks forward to coming to work. An individual needs a job that provides him with the feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. There is much more to a job than a paycheck. I call the satisfaction that we receive from our jobs “emotional paychecks.” If a person does not receive “emotional paychecks” from his job, he will be unhappy. Who wants to dread going to work each day? Life is too short!

When a dairyman starts the process of changing careers, he needs to ask himself what he enjoys doing. Working with cattle, equipment or people? Analyzing financial and production records? Does he enjoy working with the public as part of his job? Managing people? What type of environment would he like to work in – outside or inside? Where would he like to live? How important is staying within an hour’s drive (50 miles) to be near family and friends?

Salary is a major issue when making a career change. The dairyman needs to generate a salary that will provide him with a standard of living that is comparable to his non-farming neighbors. Many times the jobs in rural areas pay in the $8 to $12 per hour range, which is not enough to support a family when housing, food, gasoline, and other costs are added in.

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The dairyman needs to determine how much income he and his family need to survive. Basically, he has two options: move to another area where he will be paid a higher salary for his skill set or retrain for another occupation. Is he willing to move to another part of the state or country to find a job?

Flexibility is important in finding employment. Once the dairyman decides what kinds of jobs he would like and how much he needs to earn, then he can start writing a cover letter and resume.

The cover letter should express interest in a specific position and highlight skills that can transfer well into the new position. A cover letter catches the reader’s attention and convinces the reader to read the resume.

A resume is a one- or two-page summary of an applicant’s skills, experience and education that presents the applicant in the best possible light. The resume introduces the applicant to the employer. It stimulates the employer’s interest in meeting the applicant and learning more about him. The goal of the resume is to get an interview and ultimately land the job.

The old adage “a farmer is a jack of all trades” applies to the job search. Farmers have acquired numerous skills in the operation of their farms. The challenge is putting these skills down on a resume in a manner that is marketable to the outside world. My suggestion is to have a family member or friend, someone who works off the farm, help write the resume. Hiring a professional to write and tailor a resume and cover letter to address the needs of a specific position may be useful.

A dairyman might balk at paying several hundred dollars to a professional to write a cover letter and resume. The dairyman needs to remember, though, that he is starting a new chapter in his life. If the dairyman is not willing to invest several hundred dollars in finding a career that is satisfying and provides the means to support him and his family, then what are his priorities in life? Once the cover letter and resume are written, the dairyman can start his job search.

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Networking is an excellent way to start a job search. When someone networks, he is developing and maintaining contacts with a variety of people who might be helpful to him. My suggestion is to “cast the net” over a large number of potential employers.

To start this, the dairyman needs to write down the farm organizations that he has participated in (Farm Bureau, breed associations, cooperatives). Next, the dairyman should record the local government boards that he has served on (supervisory boards, councils, zoning commissions).

Finally, he should list church and civic groups that he has been a member of (Rotary, Lions). He should ask himself if there are people within these groups who could provide advice and names of potential employers. Most people are flattered when someone solicits advice from them.

My next suggestion would be to contact farm suppliers and professionals that the dairyman used to work with (veterinarians, feed suppliers, A.I. companies, machinery dealers). Ask them if they know of firms that would be interested in skills and experience learned from dairies. Networking is the No. 1 way people find jobs.

In rural communities, word quickly spreads that a dairyman is selling his farm. In my experience, large farms and local agribusinesses will contact the dairyman since it is difficult to find experienced employees with a strong work ethic. Would the producer like to be a middle manager on a large farm (herdsman, mechanic or manage the cropping programs)? Would he consider being a salesman for a local equipment dealership or drive a truck for a local business since he knows most of the farmers in the area?

Most states have department of labor offices. I would recommend speaking with the office staff because they will have names of employers with jobs available in agriculture and other fields.

I would suggest that the dairyman quickly follow up on leads that contacts have shared. Do not be bashful; send a cover letter and a resume, call or visit these prospective employers at the earliest convenience. When speaking with potential employers, I strongly encourage the producer to be enthusiastic and upbeat, explain the skills he has that the employer needs, give the employers the impression that he is willing to work hard, start at the bottom and work his way up in the system.

Producers with college degrees may want to “dust them off.” Although the degree may be more than 30 years old, it still shows that a person has attained a level of achievement. Some companies use a degree as a screening tool when evaluating potential job applicants. The degree shows that the person had the drive, discipline and time management skills to complete a course of study within a specified time.

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A dairy farmer may be forced to train and learn new skills in order to earn a “livable salary” to support himself and his family. How does he acquire new job skills? Where does he go to learn these skills? Local community colleges are excellent places to learn new skills for the workplace. The first thing he needs to learn is how to use a computer.

Basic computer skills are a necessity in the work force. Local high schools and community colleges may offer evening classes (three to five two-hour sessions) on basic computer skills (how to use e-mail, research information on the Internet, use spreadsheets and write simple documents using MS Word). The younger generation is also there for advice in operating a computer. Rest assured, children and/or grandchildren can be a resource and a motivation to proficiently operate new technology in a few short weeks.

It is a scary thought for a middle-aged person to think about going to a community college and retraining for a new job. Community colleges have Work Force Services Divisions that train people to connect to jobs in one semester (about 12 to 14 weeks). The goal of these training programs is to help build the older students’ confidence, teach them needed skills and start them on a path to success in their new careers.

The U.S. Department of Labor website ( www.acinet.org/acinet/default.asp ) provides a wealth of information about exploring careers, self-assessment, salaries and benefits, cost-of-living calculators, employment trends, educational and training opportunities, financial aid sources, resume writing and interviewing skills. This website is an excellent place to start researching potential career changes.

As a former dairy farmer who sold my dairy farm in December 1999, I found that the process of making a career change can be exciting. The job search is exciting because dairy farming is highly respected in the work place. Dairymen have a strong work ethic, are resourceful and are dedicated to their families and neighbors. A middle-aged dairy farmer has the confidence and maturity to make decisions based on common sense and experience and implement those decisions. It can take years for young employees to gain this kind of experience.

The job search is scary because of uncertainty. It is difficult to predict when the dairyman will be called for an interview and when he will be offered a job. The job search can take weeks to a month or longer. A word of advice – trust gut instinct. If working in a certain job or for an employer does not feel comfortable, keep walking down the road. My experience has been that the negative feelings that I had about a job and/or employers have been validated at a later date.

A dairyman may have to move away from his home to find a job that will enable him to provide a good standard of living to support himself and his family. My feeling is that there are good people everywhere. It takes time to meet them in a new location. Community, school and church activities are great ways to make new friends in the community. Who knows, the new location may be better that the old one! Today I live more than 400 miles from my family. Always remember, family and friends are one phone call and/or plane ride away.

The dairyman should never forget what he has accomplished. How many people have taken the risks to work with animals and crops that are subject to the weather and price volatility in the market place? I am proud to tell the public that I was a dairy farmer. I will always be a dairy farmer at heart.

There are employers who want dairy skills and experience. It takes time to connect with these employers. A dairyman needs to have confidence in his skills, trust his instincts and remember that looking for employment is a full-time job. With patience, perseverance, flexibility and the willingness to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, the dairyman will find a job that is both emotionally and financially satisfying.

Best wishes to the dairyman for peace of mind, joy and happiness in this new and exciting chapter of his life. Sometimes we have to take risks to get ahead in life. Go for it! Life is an adventure! PD

PHOTO : Local community colleges are excellent places to learn new skills for the workplace. Photo from Photos.com.

Peter Callan

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