So you want to be an organic dairy farmer?
Here are the facts: 1) Dairy represents approximately 70 percent of agricultural economic activity in New Hampshire and Vermont. 2) The U.S. loses 5-10 percent of its dairy farms annually due to the significant barriers new and old farmers face. 3) The average age of dairy farmers is nearing 60, and many do not have an identified successor
The problem is clear; fortunately, for the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA), Stonyfield Farm, Inc., and Wolfe’s Neck Farm, so is the solution.
The DGA, established in 2010 and headquartered in Wisconsin, is the first accredited apprenticeship for farming in the nation. The program, which exists locally at Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine in partnership with Stonyfield, aims to establish the next generation of dairy farmers.
The pursuit to address New England’s declining organic dairy production began for Stonyfield in 2014 with the launch of their direct milk supply program, when the yogurt business started contracting directly with a handful of farms. The program’s focus was to sign on new farmers just getting started in organic dairy, conventional farmers transitioning to organic dairy, and/or existing organic dairies interested in scaling up their farm or helping to bring up the next generation.
“Dairy is the anchor tenant of New England’s agricultural economy. We needed a more robust program to train these farmers in how to be successful in managing their own farm,” says Britt Lundgren, Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture at Stonyfield.
While Stonyfield was discovering the best way to bring new dairy farmers onto the scene, Wolfe’s Neck Farm was revisiting their mission to advance sustainable agriculture in the region. With both missions aligned, Wolfe’s Neck Farm applied for the Danone Ecosystem Fund with the support of Stonyfield and received a major grant to be used for the Organic Dairy Farmer Research and Training Program.
Four individuals currently make up the apprenticeship at Wolfe’s Neck Farm and applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Graduates from the two-year residential program will receive a U.S. Department of Labor Accreditation for an Apprenticeship in recognition of their skills and craft in the dairy trade. Accreditation provides new farmers the necessary experience to make them eligible for a farm loan and the program teaches apprentices how to manage a financially stable and sustainable organic dairy farm.
Sarah Littlefield, Dairy Director at Wolfe’s Neck, oversees the apprentices alongside Ben Jensen, Herd Manager, and Matt DeGrandpre, Operations Manager. Littlefield has a degree in dairy science and has spent her career as a dairy farmer. She and her team teach participants how to keep calves clean and dry, proper feeding practices, and additional skills and maintenance to raise productive cows.
Littlefield stresses to her apprentices the commitment required to be an organic dairy farmer. “Dairy farming is more than just a job; it really becomes a lifestyle,” she says. “Cows have to be milked every day, twice a day. The mass majority of small dairy farms don’t get days off, and they don’t take holidays.”
The program requires 4,000 work hours and 288 class hours over a two-year span. During this time, a significant lesson in sustainable agriculture is taught through managed grazing, a system where the majority of a farm’s acres are planted to perennial forages and cows are rotated through pastures of high quality grasses.
This method reverts back to the old ways of farming and allows grasses to rest and regrow, cows to harvest their own feed, and dairy farmers to save in overhead costs by restoring and reusing natural resources. Several financial institutes have already expressed interest in Wolfe’s Neck’s program graduates and would like to have a hand in helping them become established organic dairy farmers.
> To apply for the Organic Dairy Farmer Research and Training Program at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, you can complete an application via the DGA’s website at: www.dga-national.org/Participate-Apprentices.
> For more information regarding the Farm’s program you can email Sarah Littlefield at firstname.lastname@example.org.