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Dairy farmer career paths

Posted May 1996

This report is based on observations of dairy farmer career structures in New Zealand gathered during a field trip to that country in the spring of 1995. These observations are evaluated for their relevance to Wisconsin’s declining rates of farm entry and the constricted options for farm exit for many Wisconsin dairy families.

The report’s primary findings:

New Zealand’s historical successes and current tensions relating to farmer career transitions are due to the larger integration of three key components of its dairy industry:

  • Supportive dairy farming systems. New Zealand’s dairy farming systems are built on a favorable physical climate and intensive grazing techniques that have made possible the lowest variable costs of production in the world and that have enabled aspiring family farmers to enter the industry relatively easily.
  • A nationally integrated organizational structure. New Zealand has constructed a nationally integrated, farmer-responsive organizational structure headed by the New Zealand Dairy Board that provides leadership on important dimensions of the dairy industry, particularly marketing.
  • Institutionalized farmer career paths. New Zealand has developed a career structure that enables committed, energetic persons from both farm and non-farm backgrounds to relatively smoothly enter, advance within, and retire from dairy farm careers and enterprises.

New Zealand’s dairy career structure has these important dimensions for our consideration for dairying in Wisconsin:

  • Clear career stages. Steps in a career pathway have been institutionalized, and role models are plentiful for farming families at all stages.
  • Early career training. High quality training and farm apprenticeships prepare young, aspiring farmers for successful entry into dairying.
  • Effective mid-career transitions. Contract and sharemilking arrangements allow farmers to defer land ownership until the middle stages of their careers while accumulating capital in the form of cattle.
  • Complementary entry-exit strategies. Phased-in retirement and farm exit strategies complement staged farm entry strategies.
  • Institutional support. With support from both the public and private sectors, institutional structures have been put in place to coordinate and legitimate the overall farmer career structure.

The report examines:

  • recruitment and early training of New Zealand’s dairy farmers,
  • mid-career transitions through sharemilking agreements,
  • lifestyle advantages offered by the career structure to retiring dairy farmers, and contemporary stresses on New Zealand’s traditional dairy career structure caused by historical trends toward larger, more expensive-to-purchase farms and by short-term rises in farmland prices fueled by GATT expectations.

In the authors’ judgment, the most useful lessons from New Zealand for dairy farmer career structures in Wisconsin are the importance of institutional arrangements and organizational relationships. The challenges for Wisconsin’s dairying community and the opportunities for mutually beneficial exchanges with New Zealand are framed in terms of such arrangements and relationships. A fundamental challenge for both dairying communities will be to insure that the institutional forces generated by effective farmer career structures can withstand the forces pushing strongly in both Wisconsin and New Zealand toward declining farmer entry rates.

The full report can be ordered from CIAS for $3. To order, send a check payable to “UW-Madison CIAS” along with a note regarding what publication(s) you are ordering and the address where you would like it/them sent. Send you request to:
1535 Observatory Drive
Madison, WI 53705
(608) 262-5200