In Vermont and around the country, the economic crisis facing the dairy industry is a top concern, and along with it come significant implications for families, communities and farmland. The problem is complex, the stakes are high, and farmers and those who support them want solutions.
As with many complex, persistent problems, the solution is likely to lie in many places. One of those is in helping farmers to convert to grazing, or if they’re already grazing, to improve their practices in order to increase profitability, build quality of life for themselves and their communities, and protect the land and water we all share.
In August, in partnership with the Vermont Farm to Plate Network, the Center for Sustainable Ag.’s Pasture Program was delighted to welcome Mary Ellen Franklin to our team. Mary Ellen is the Program Education Coordinator for Vermont’s Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Program, and she’s been working hard to support farmers and aspiring farmers in the region. She recently took a few minutes to let us know what she’s offering, and how she sees her work fitting in to the big picture of dairy in Vermont.
Center for Sustainable Agriculture: Tell us about the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program in a nutshell.
Mary Ellen Franklin: Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship is the only accredited apprenticeship for farming in the country. Its mission is to provide a guided pathway to independent farm ownership, to develop grazing careers, and to strengthen the economic and environmental well- being of rural communities and the dairy industry.
The apprenticeship is an “earn while you learn” opportunity. It is composed of 4,000 hours of paid employment and training over two years. Of those hours 3,712 are on the farm under the guidance of an approved Master Grazer. The 288 balance of hours is comprised of courses in farm and pasture management, herd health, milk quality, soils, holistic management, and peer discussion groups, pasture walks, and farming conferences and networking opportunities.
CSA: And why is this program a good one for Vermont right now?
MEF: Dairies in Vermont are experiencing the same pressures as dairies across the country. Vermont Agricultural Census data from 2012 shows the average age of farmers in Vermont was 57 years old, and that many don’t have a second generation who want to continue farming. Falling milk prices make it more important than ever to reduce costs; the grazing model has been shown to help do this while at the same time improving herd health and the environmental benefits. And it’s well known that qualified hired help is very hard to come by.
CSA: What sorts of folks might want to know about the program?
MEF: Farmers best suited to become Master Graziers are optimistic about the future of their farm business, they believe the industry still holds opportunities for people who have the desire to succeed and live this lifestyle, and they consider themselves educators willing to pass their knowledge on.
The program requires that apprentices have a high school education or equivalent. Apprentices need to be hard-working, not be afraid of long hours or getting dirty, be able and willing to work with others, and be passionate about the well-being of the animals they partner with and the land that provides for them.
Taking on an apprentice for two years is a big step for any farmer. But I think as young people complete this program and continue to be part of the dairy industry, people are going to take notice and get onboard with this. I am going to work to grow the pool of approved master grazers and the pool of qualified and motivated apprentices here in Vermont. Apprentices that are more likely to put their skills to work here in the Northeast when they graduate as Journeymen and Journeywomen.
CSA: Any early stories from your initial visits?
MEF: I started in the position of Educational Coordinator in Vermont in mid-August. I came on board with 10 approved Master Graziers in Vermont, plus one in MA, and right now we have one Master-Apprentice pair. All of them take grazing very seriously and want to see that knowledge passed on. All of them are optimistic about the future.
The Master Apprentice pair are doing really well. The young man is 3/4 of the way through the two years and plans on starting his own farm in Ohio when he gets done. He has the skills and a plan and Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship helped in a big way. I have had the pleasure of meeting several apprentices and I have been very impressed with every one of them. They are hard- working, competent, knowledgeable and invested in grazing dairies.
CSA: And what should folks know about you?
MEF: I fell in love with dairy as a 20-year-old college dropout. A very nice farmer in Lebanon, Connecticut, went out on a limb for me and gave me a job and the opportunity to get started in dairy. I never looked back. I worked on different farms learning different skill sets as I went. I read everything I could get my hands on and I became a dairy farmer. I have farmed for 40 years, and my husband David and son John still farm in Guilford, Vermont.
I believe there are young people like I used to be out there, that want to do this kind of work and live this kind of life. DGA is a terrific way to get a start in grazing dairy. I’m here to spread the word and grow this program in Vermont so the next generation can find a way to dairy and maybe the older farmers can step away and feel good about all they have accomplished on their farms over their careers.
Interested in learning more about becoming a Master or an Apprentice? Contact Mary Ellen Franklin.