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Dairy apprenticeship helps grads start new farms

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Boots, all clean and ready for a move. Joseph Tomandl III, executive director of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship said it was a bittersweet day, as the owners of these boots are moving on from Tomandl's apprenticeship program to their own farm. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

Tomandl established the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship seven years ago to ease potential farmers' access to alternative dairy models.

The two-year, 4,000-hour program matches matches applicants with a master dairy grazier and serves as both employment and training, taking lessons and structure from the time-tested guild apprenticeships.

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The program equips graduates with the skills and knowledge they need to start their own farm. So far, instructors from about 130 farms throughout nine states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, have mentored applicants.

"We are trying to keep this element of diversity within our dairy industry for the benefit and strength of our dairy industry," Tomandl said.

Dairies get larger and larger, generation to generation, Tomandl said, making them harder to transition.

"There's also this sort of belief in inevitability of increased technologization — technology, mechanization, increased scale — that all that is always good and that it's inevitable and that biological systems are just like mechanical systems and that those costs are never going to catch up with you," said Bridget O'Meara, DGA communications director.

For dairies looking to establish a multi-thousand-cow operation, he said, resources including accountants, lawyers and engineers abound.

But, he said, "If I want to start a 150 cow grazing dairy, there really isn't a whole lot."

"That piece of industry isn't there, and it's understandable why it's not there because not too many people are in that sector of industry feeding it," Tomandl said. "They're not utilizing it."

More and more people are getting away from the land, he said, and a large driving force behind the apprenticeship is reinforcing that connection.

Much of the success of the program has come with matching new farmers with ones toward the end of their career, ready to transition out of farming.

"Each one of these farms could be an independent sustainable entity, which when that farmer is ready to retire — he can manage them all as one — but when that farmer is ready to retire there's no reason why they can't slowly piece these farms off — and their life investments — into independent businesses in their wake and leave that behind," Tomandl said. "Which is a much better scenario than a $20 million monstrosity that only a Land O'Lakes could buy when they're done."

More information on the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship can be found at