There is little doubt that Wisconsin is THE heart of dairy country. It is a vital part of Wisconsin's economy, but there is concern for its future. Statistics show that the state has lost 8,700 farms in the last five years, and with the average age of farmers being 57 years of age, there is reason for this concern. Even though there are people interested in the dairy industry, there are many barriers to farm ownership.
Realizing this need, GrassWorks, Inc., worked to develop a program and then joined forces with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards in 2010 to establish the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA). Its mission is to provide a guided pathway to independent dairy farm ownership, developing grazing careers and strengthening the economic and environmental well-being of rural communities and the dairy industry.
Program Director, Joe Tomandl, notes that the DGA is the first of its kind in the nation. “So many other professions have a pathway. However, prior to this, if somebody wanted to become a dairy farmer, there really was no pathway. So we created a formalized Apprenticeship registered with the WI Department of Workforce Development in dairy farming.”
Tomandl describes the two-year program as “a rigorous apprenticeship designed so that upon completion a person will have the skills to help manage a dairy or transition into a dairy operation.” Apprentices work on a farm under a guided workbook with a checklist of all of the competencies needed to complete the apprenticeship. During this two-year period, the employers document the competencies as they are achieved.
Tomandl describes it as a paying job, “earning while learning.” DGA consists of 4,000 hours over two years, combining on-farm employment and mentorship under an approved Master Dairy Grazier (3712 hours). “DGA employs three educational coordinators to oversee the on-the-job experiences,” notes Tomandl. The coordinators help ensure a smooth process for both the farmer and the Apprentice.
The other 288 hours are classroom/workshop type instruction that the apprentice must pay for. These opportunities include the following:
- Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (at several distance-learning locations).
- Classes in dairy/pasture management offered online and in seminar format through the Wisconsin Technical College System.
- Pasture walks, field days and spring grazing workshops.
- Other conferences and education events coordinated through support groups in the state.
“At this point, DGA has 45 approved farm sites, seven graduates over the past two years, another 12 currently in the program and a list of more than 60 Apprentice Candidates awaiting placement,” says Tomandl.
To qualify, the applicant must be at least 18-years-old with a high school diploma. There's no cost to enroll; however, individuals are expected to pay for tuition and books with related instruction classes. “We want people to know about this opportunity. It is a chance for people who have yearned to get into the dairy industry but did not have the know-how or the financial means to do so to have this opportunity. We do want applicants to know upfront that this is a rigorous apprenticeship, and we are looking for high quality, motivated candidates.”
The first step is to go online and fill out an application. “We look at this application as being a resume for that individual, and it is placed in our database.” The next step is to let dairy employers know that there are applicants in the database, after which they can look over the resumes to see which ones might fit the need of that particular employer. “Once the farmer makes a choice, they then meet with the candidate for a face-to-face interview.” Hopefully, the connection is made and the Apprenticeship begins.
Tomandl says he's working with the Federal Dept. of Labor to make this a national program and that there is interest in other states. To learn more about the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, go to www.dga-national.org or call (715) 560-0389. You can also check it out on Facebook - Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship.