By Brittany Olson
MEDFORD, Wis. – Before Joe Tomandl was a dairy farmer, he was an agriculture teacher.
“I started seeing fewer and fewer kids straight off the farm in my classes,” Tomandl said. “I taught ag for four years before I started farming, and my wife taught for two years. Managed grazing was pretty much the only way we could even get started in farming by allowing us to focus the cash on the cows. New farmers face significant barriers and are not entering the industry at a rate that offsets the loss of retiring producers.”
Tomandl, who milks and grazes 330 cows on two farms a few miles east of Medford, Wis., with his wife, Christy, is staying plenty busy these days as the executive director of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA).
DGA, the first formal apprenticeship for farming in the United States, matches certified master graziers with apprenticeship candidates looking to start their own grass-based dairy farm in the future or transition into an existing operation. “Apprentices graduate to certified journey grazier status, receive additional support services as they advance in their career, and have the option of eventually becoming master graziers and taking on apprentices themselves in this unique farmer training program,” Tomandl said.
The brainchild for DGA came about in 2009, to shine a light on farm loss and keeping rural communities vibrant. Between the number of American dairy farms shrinking by 5 to 10 percent each year, and the average age of farmers being 59 years old, with many farmers not having an identified successor, Tomandl felt something had to be done.
“The whole idea was to address rural communities and farms, as we’re losing about 500 dairy farms every year in Wisconsin,” Tomandl said. “When every farm operates exactly the same, the dairy industry becomes brittle. The idea of a diverse and robust dairy industry comes from having farms that aren’t all the same, and that’s what makes the industry strong.”
Tomandl realized farming skills were not best taught in a classroom. He and a group of 15 dairy graziers and other grazing experts came together to look at the concept of creating a pathway that would link retiring master graziers with young aspiring farmers looking to learn about grazing, while including some element of continuing education.
“The reality is, it’s difficult to teach a farmer in the classroom,” Tomandl said. “That’s when it clicked that a formal apprenticeship was the way to go.”
After their core group created its industry standards and earned a small development grant to explore their idea, the DGA was born. The apprenticeship portion is two years long with 4,000 hours of hands-on instruction and paid employment from the master grazier that is teaching and training the apprentice.
On top of the apprenticeship, 288 hours of online and in-person continuing education with courses in pasture management, milk quality, herd health, dairy nutrition, farm financial management and soils, nutrients and composting dovetail with the apprenticeship to enhance skills learned on the farm.
In order to make dairy grazing approved for apprenticeship, DGA had to be registered with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. “They were elated,” Tomandl said. “No one in agriculture had done this before, and it was real workforce development.”
In 2010, DGA secured a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant through the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which helped to spearhead the new program through its infancy.
“It’s growing really well now, but we were careful in the early years to not push too fast so we could develop a solid platform,” Tomandl said. “We didn’t want it to be a flash in the pan, and we didn’t just want to be in Wisconsin, either.”
In order to take the program nationwide, DGA registered with the Federal Department of Labor, as well.
“We are really growing quick now that we’re registered at the federal level,” Tomandl said.
In 2010, DGA had zero master dairy training sites enrolled, as the organization refers to its farms where apprentices are being trained. As of December 2017, the organization has now grown to include over 140 farms across the United States, with 243 apprenticeship candidates looking for placement.
Joe Tomandl displays a map showing all of the dairy training sites, apprentices and apprenticeship candidates involved with the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship. The program is a formal apprenticeship linking certified master graziers with apprentices looking to start careers in grass-based dairy farming. PHOTOS BY BRITTANY OLSON
“We have graduated 18 journey graziers, and have 45 in training right now,” Tomandl said.
In order to qualify as a master grazier for the program, farmers must have utilized managed grazing for at least five years, or have been certified organic with a significant grazing component for five years or more.
“When a farmer comes on board, they apply online. We figure out where they are and assign an education coordinator from their region, who will visit the farm and send a report to our national committee,” Tomandl said. “Then, after they are approved, we match masters and candidates on our linking site.”
Master graziers can use the linking site to choose potential apprenticeship candidates based on their desired location and management styles, among other factors. After being linked, masters will interview apprenticeship candidates on the farm to make sure they’re just as good a fit in person as they appear to be online.
“Then, if they do prove to be a good match and the master hires the candidate, the apprenticeship program begins,” Tomandl said. “Our education coordinators on the ground will visit the farm once a month to see how things are going and to offer their support to both the apprentice and the master. We are training masters and successors.”
The DGA’s linking site and dashboard not only tells Tomandl the number of candidates seeking entry into the program, but also how many hours apprentices have logged and how much they are being paid.
Tomandl has two apprentices himself, one on each of his farms, and one will eventually be Tomandl’s successor on the main farm. “My very first apprentice just started dairying on his own this August, so that was pretty cool,” Tomandl said.
Providing a lane of opportunity for young farmers to enter the industry, and retiring farmers to have someone to pass the farm down to, has been a rewarding labor of love for Tomandl.
“We’re looking for farmers who are not only good farmers, but also good teachers that care about training the next generation,” Tomandl said.