SOMERSET -- Several western Wisconsin leaders and stakeholders met with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin on Thursday, Aug. 22, during a roundtable hear about her Regional Training Networks for Employers’ Required Skills or PARTNERS Act. The apprenticeship legislation would invest in Wisconsin agriculture apprenticeship programs to build the farming workforce of tomorrow.

“I’m hoping to hear that some legislation that I’m working on dovetails and compliments that Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship well. I think it is something Congress will embrace and pass since it has been a long time since we’ve paid attention to apprenticeship programs,” Baldwin told those gathered at the Bass Lake Cheese Factory. “The PARTNERS Act is a suitable name because it has to do with creating more opportunities for apprenticeships, either for long known, well standing apprenticeships or new ones that are being created.”

According to Baldwin, the PARTNERS Act looks to address small and medium businesses that are often intimidated or don’t have the wherewithal to deal with apprenticeships like bigger companies do. The legislation also looks to invest in public-private partnerships, boost apprenticeship programs for workers and help close the skills gap in Wisconsin. The idea, Baldwin said, is to identify the need and then separate small employers with similar apprentice needs and allow them to work together, hopefully with the support and cheering on of the local workforce boards and local technical colleges to provide the training.

“That will hopefully allow them to get over that barrier of being small and an impediment to apprenticeships. It will also, hopefully, open up the box of creativity to see if we’ve really invented all the apprenticeships that could be useful that could be useful in our economy and our society,” Baldwin said .

With the PARTNERS Act, states would submit applications to the U.S. Department of Labor for local initiatives to start or expand apprenticeships. The state would provide grants of up to $500,000 for two years to local public-private partnerships to bring industry and education partners together to start and run work-based training programs, as well as worker support services that help businesses develop apprenticeship initiatives.

The PARTNERS Act would make programs such at the local Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship to eligible for grants.

“We were losing farmers and didn’t have as many students in FFA that were from farms. To really try to figure out, from an education and content standpoint, why is this happening and why don’t we have the farm and how do we train more farmers. In reality, it is really difficult to train a complete farmer in a classroom. However, put them on the job working with somebody who has been doing this for five, 10 or 15 years in an experiential work environment, now you can start bridging some of those gaps,” said Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Executive Director Joe Tomendl.

The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship — the first formal apprenticeship for farming in the nation — was created by and for farmers to address these challenges.

“The other piece is that realizing what is happening in rural communities is really about the people. If we can create that pathway and platform to empower people with knowledge and resources to get to that level of farm and business ownership, that is really what is going to make this happen. That is what drives rural communities. That is what drives entrepreneurship,” Tomendl said.

One idea Tomendl shared with the group was to work toward a new 3,000 cow dairy set up with a business model of 20 150-cow dairies in a central area with the business structured that individuals can come in at every level of working, management, earning equity and ownership.

“At the end of the day, we could have 20, brand-new independent businesses in a rural community that are thriving, contributing and that are scaled in size where they can be transitioned, purchase together and sell together. If we could get something like this going, we could look at more regional processing, which keeps more money in rural communities,” Tomendl said. “Then we could look at more regional distribution and keep even more money around. And if we could do it in dairy, could we unravel other industries like hog and poultry that are total integrated.”

For more information on the PARTNERS Act, visit baldwin.senate.gov.

For more information on Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, visit dga-national.org.