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Farmer Training and Development

Apprenticeships have been a successful pathway to learn a trade or profession for millennia, but this educational model has been substantially underdeveloped in modern U.S. agriculture.

Supported through a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development grant, PASA recently concluded a project evaluating informal apprenticeship programs in Pennsylvania. Through online surveys and phone interviews, we engaged with twenty-two farms that host apprenticeships, internships, or otherwise-named training programs for beginning farmers. We found that these programs provide a crucial labor source for many of the mentor farmers and offer a valuable entry point into agriculture for some aspiring farmers.

However, many of the mentor farmers described difficulty recruiting qualified candidates and often found that their apprentices lacked the commitment and mindset to persevere through a full season of farm work. From their perspective, several apprentices felt that their time on the farm was almost entirely devoted to routine farm labor tasks and were not offered a well-rounded training curriculum that could seriously prepare them for farm management.

Improving this situation requires the establishment of formal apprenticeship programs. Farmers who host informal apprenticeships on their farms have limited time and resources to devote to their employee’s professional development. In contrast, a formal apprenticeship program is coordinated by an industry sponsor and a steering committee that are dedicated to developing a complete professional training curriculum.

This curriculum includes both a portfolio of skills and competencies developed on-the-job and academic coursework on related technical topics. By administering a consistent curriculum, the industry sponsor and steering committee can award apprentices that complete the curriculum with a certification and vouch for the quality of their training. Formal apprenticeship programs can also register with the federal Department of Labor, in which case this credential has nationally recognized weight and validity.

The complete curriculum and credential value of a formal apprenticeship program helps employers attract high-quality, motivated applicants while also ensuring that apprentices are well prepared for their chosen profession. Thus, formal apprenticeship programs offer tremendous potential to improve the quality of training opportunities available for new and beginning farmers in Pennsylvania and throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

PASA is looking forward to advancing the formal apprenticeship model to serve the impressive diversity of crops and farm types in Pennsylvania agriculture. Remarkably, there is currently only one formal, federally registered program for farm management in the U.S., the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA).

Originally developed by a group of grass-based dairy farmers in Wisconsin, DGA has been training a new generation of dairy farmers since 2012. DGA combines over 3,700 hours of on-the-job training by a Master Grazier with nearly 300 hours of university-level coursework in dairy health and nutrition, pasture management and business planning.

Master Graziers are accomplished dairy farmers with over five years experience in managed-grazing and are vetted and approved for the program by DGA staff. After completing the program, successful apprentices become Journey Dairy Graziers and work with DGA staff to outline a plan for a leadership role in a grazing dairy farm. These pathways can include a new farm business, a salaried farm manager position, farm expansion, a spin-off farm, or a transfer of farm ownership.

DGA has received inquiries from dairy farmers around the U.S. and is currently expanding activities into Missouri, Minnesota, and Maine. DGA currently has 63 approved Master Graziers, 22 active master-apprentice pairs, 7 Journey Dairy Graziers, and a list of more than 50 applicants interested in apprenticeship positions.

Pennsylvania has a demonstrable need for DGA, and PASA is well positioned to establish this exceptional program in our region. Pennsylvania is currently the 5th largest dairy producing state in the country including a growing community of grazing dairy farmers, many of whom are PASA members. Pennsylvania has seen substantial growth in the organic dairy sector over the past ten years. Several economic studies have demonstrated that grazing dairies can be a more profitable business model for family farms than confinement systems, in some cases even without organic price premiums, making this farming model an attractive choice for beginning farmers. Grazing dairies also provide a robust solution to major environmental crises connected to confinement dairy farms, namely soil erosion and nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. Pennsylvania’s dairy industry is also challenged by many of the same social problems facing farmers throughout the U.S. The mean farmer age is over 56, farm businesses are struggling to recruit a new generation of trained leadership, and family-scale dairy farms are increasingly consolidating into large industrial confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

These factors combine to make Pennsylvania and ideal location to expand the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship. On December 15th, 2015 PASA convened a meeting between DGA staff representatives and three of the most accomplished grazing dairy farmers in our membership. The conversation at this meeting convinced us that many of Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers would be excited about participating in the program and helping to expand both the land area in perennial, grass-based agriculture and the number of professionally trained dairy farmers in our region.

Formal, registered apprenticeships are an exciting opportunity for U.S. agriculture, and the success of the DGA program begs the question of whether its best features can be adapted to other farm business types. Pennsylvania boasts an impressively diverse agricultural community, with industries in several livestock groups (dairy, swine, poultry), dozens of fruit and vegetable crops, and agronomic crops including corn, soybean, and wheat.

Consequently, the region provides an ideal location to systematically explore the potential to expand the formalized apprenticeship format to other types of farm business models. This work will require convening groups of stakeholders in each farming system, introducing them to the strengths and constraints of formalized apprenticeship programs, and cultivating the capacity to develop new formal apprenticeships. With our broad membership and ongoing collaborations with many agricultural organizations, PASA is prepared to engage livestock, vegetable, and grain farmers across the state and region and take a collaborative look at improving training opportunities for aspiring farmers in each system.

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