As older farmers retire, fewer young farmers are stepping in to take their place. The number of beginning farmers dropped 20 percent in the last five-year census period, and the average US farmer now tops 58 years of age. Farmers over 75 far outnumber those under 35, as well as those aged 35 to 44.
This is dire news for Wisconsin, where agriculture accounts for 16 percent of the state’s industrial revenue while contributing over 400,000 jobs to the state’s economy. Agriculture, and dairy in particular, is stitched into our landscape and defines our culture.
Fortunately, there are young people trying to make a go of farming. One place where beginning farmers are finding their footing is the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF). For over 20 years, WSBDF has trained and empowered Wisconsin’s next generation of farmers to beat the odds and make a successful and rewarding career out of farming. The WSBDF is a joint undertaking of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Farm and Industry Short Course at the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
And it’s working.
A survey of WSBDF program graduates indicates that over three quarters of them are farming, and nearly half of those have started their own farm businesses. The sense of optimism among students, graduates, farmers, and trainers involved in the program is palpable. Even skeptical students come out feeling motivated.
“[I] came out of the experience feeling inspired to continue pushing toward a sustainable farming goal that is quickly evolving from an idea into a real objective that has taken on definition and substance, largely as a result of the WSBDF program,” says Mark Bearce, who graduated from the program in 2014. Since then, Mark has gone on to successfully launch the Kettle Range Meat Company.
Bearce continues, “I’m by nature a cynic who doesn’t often run into programs, meetings or groups that truly embody optimism and change, but WSBDF manages to accomplish that in a humble and practical way.”
No one embodies the program’s humble, practical optimism more than its director, Dick Cates. His personal experience raising livestock on Cates Family Farm draws the respect of students. When asked what makes the program work, Dick responded, “The tie that binds is that for all of our students, what gets them out of bed in the morning is they want to farm. And what we provide them is business training to keep them from making the big mistakes, and community around shared goals. Community is priceless.”
The community of WSBDF graduates is growing. Since its inception, the school has trained nearly 500 aspiring farmers. In response to growing demand for the program, WSBDF has expanded to include a distance education option for students at campuses and extension offices across the state.
WSBDF course materials draw from the knowledge of experienced farmers, extension specialists, government agencies and other agricultural professionals, many of whom serve as WSBDF instructors. Students find the diverse instructional team both engaging and grounded in practical experience.
“The quality and depth of the presenters for the WSBDF has given our family a top notch, how-to manual for entering into a grazing-based business and life,” says Peter Hutter, a graduate of the program who is working as a farm manager and as an agricultural certification specialist. “We came away with a barn-full of inspiration, and the solid ground-under-our-feet feeling of having been shown ‘how it is’ with all the beauty and the sweat right there.”
In addition to the people who lead and instruct the program, part of the success of WSBDF comes from its emphasis on business planning. Through the course, students are encouraged to work through real-life possibilities and ideas as they prepare a complete business plan.
“I’d have to say the whole business plan process was really valuable,” says Robert Klinker, a graduate of the program who went on to start a successful dairy farm. “The plan I wrote up in class is the one I used when I applied for my original FSA [Farm Service Agency] beginning farmer loan.”
Similarly, Sarah Mumm, another program graduate who is farming successfully, says, “Life came at me a lot faster than I expected, and the school helped me out in so many ways. I remember when I went to get my loan, looking up my paperwork from those classes. I know my loan officer was impressed with me when I went in because he thought my plan was good.”
Another contributor to the success of WSBDF may be its emphasis on pasture-based farm management. For beginning farmers, producing grass-fed dairy and meat offers a potentially lower-cost startup option with built-in sustainability, and a growing market.
“I was raised to believe you can’t make a living on farming alone,” says Andy Jaworski, a graduate of the program who now manages a pasture-based dairy farm and sells his milk to Organic Valley. “Once I learned more about grazing and the organic route, I decided that if I put all my effort into it, I can make farming my career.” Andy is steadily progressing toward his goal of buying the family farm and making the farm fully self-supporting.
WSBDF students have ample opportunities to get hands-on experience with pasture-based farming. The school offers an internship program for graduates to gain experience under a farmer mentor. WSBDF has also partnered with the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, a nationally-recognized, fully accredited two-year program in dairy grazing. “This is a win-win for both programs,” says Nadia Alber, WSBDF Co-Director. “Graduates of our school can choose to participate in a 1-2 month summer internship, which could easily lead to a full time job as an apprentice.”
Spending time in a WSBDF classroom will give anyone hope that young people not only want to farm, but that they can achieve their dreams. Beginning farmers today face serious obstacles, such as high land prices and other investment costs. WSBDF gives these farmers the connections, practical approaches, tools and skills to face challenges with confidence. Program graduates are prepared to take the next steps in their farming careers, whether as an intern or apprentice, working at a farm or taking over a family operation.
The WSBDF curriculum gives young people a chance to seriously reflect on their life and career goals, ensuring that graduates not only succeed in the farming business, but also achieve a desired quality of life. As dairy farmer Andy Jaworkski says, “I don’t know what else I’d rather be doing.”