by Ellen Fagan
New York State is the third leading producer of dairy products in the United States. However, if its dairy industry continues to follow the trend it’s on, it might not be for long. Dairy farms have been disappearing from New York’s landscape for decades. From 1998 to 2007, NY lost over 2,000 dairies. Most of the farms exiting were smaller dairy farms, and, with an aging population of farmers, the few smaller dairies that remain are a threatened species. Small dairies are an important component for a healthy dairy industry because smaller dairies put a higher percentage of their dairy income back into the local community. The loss of 100 dairy farms in a single county could cost over $30 million per year. The Cornell Dairy Farm Business Summary has shown that dairies that use grazing as a form of production are more profitable than non-grazing dairies of the similar size. Because of this, the Cornell Small Farms Program is leading the New York Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA). The DGA is a nationally recognized apprenticeship where a young person can work on an existing grazing dairy farm to receive on farm training and also complete required college training.
Unless born into a dairy farm business, if a young person has an interest in dairy farming it’s difficult to get their foot in the door for many reasons. Their barriers can include a lack of access to farmland, capital, and skills. The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship was created by and for farmers to address this challenge. Wisconsin based grazing dairyman and former ag instructor, Joseph Tomandl III identified the decline of the small grazing dairy farm in the United States, and sought to develop a program to strengthen the dairy infrastructure and create opportunities for current and future dairy farmers like himself. Thus, he created the Dairy Grazing Dairy Apprenticeship, the first accredited Apprenticeship for farming in the nation.
The DGA follows the same process as any other apprenticeship. It is a program designed to prepared skilled worker for a specific trade while they work as a full-time paid employee. Thanks to the DGA, “Dairy Grazier” is now a federally recognized occupation. According to the DGA’s website “A dairy grazier is a farmer who uses managed grazing. In managed grazing systems, the majority of farm acres are planted to perennial forages and cows are rotated through paddocks of high quality grasses that are allowed to rest and regrow. Using this cost effective method, dairy graziers are able to restore natural resources, produce high quality milk, and remain profitable in both conventional and value-added markets.” In the DGA, apprentices work under the mentorship of approved “Master Dairy Graziers” for a duration of 2 years. At the end of the program, it is not unusual for this relationship to lead to business partnership or even a transition of ownership.
Up until now, the DGA’s efforts have been mainly centered around Wisconsin and its neighboring states, where the majority of Master Dairy Graziers have applied and been approved. Currently, there are efforts to foster the development of the DGA in the Northeast. The Cornell Small Farms Program is partnering with an Advisory Committee of dairy farmers, extension personnel, and other state industry professionals to formally organize the expansion of the DGA to NY.
Why an apprenticeship? Isn’t that for industries that required skilled labor?
Farming is skilled labor, and that’s why the DGA is such a great opportunity for both Master Graziers and apprentices. The apprenticeship offers a formal, but flexible, structure that both apprentice and Master Graziers can follow to ensure the apprentice’s skill development. In return for being a mentor, the Master Grazier gets a long term, dedicated, and engaged employee who might even become a business partner in the future.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, as a young farmer, buying in grain feed can be expensive and buying machinery to harvest their own crops is a significant investment. Managed grazing is a method to lower input costs, while at the same time improving animal and environmental health, that many successful dairies practice. It also means an easier way to get into dairy farming for younger people who do not have much capital.
What does one do with a Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship?
There are a few options! The DGA general prepares any person to own and manage their own farm. An apprentice might find a avenue to their own farm through the apprenticeship by gaining equity in livestock or land. As said before, the Master Grazier and apprentice can plan to become business partners at the beginning of the apprenticeship, or the Master Grazier might plan to transition the farm to the apprentice all together. The DGA is flexible and depends on the Master Grazier’s and apprentice’s goals. The DGA is also a good way for a young person to try dairy farming before they commit to it completely.
What does the DGA involve?
The DGA is a 2 year, 4,000 hour hybrid program of on the job training and related instruction. The Master Grazier and the apprentice, with the guidance of an education coordinator, use the structure of a training manual, or “the job book”, to ensure the development of the specific skills that the apprentice will need to be a successful Master Grazier. The related instruction likely will be in the form of online classes on the apprentice’s time. For NY, this aspect of the apprenticeship is still in planning.
How do I sign up to be an apprentice/Master Grazier?
Although the program is still in development in NY, potential apprentices and Master Grazier can make a profile online at dga-national.org.
Ellen Fagan is the Program Assistant for the NY Organic Dairy Program out of Cortland County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension. More information about the NY Organic Dairy Program can be found at blogs.cornell.edu/