Program provides on-farm experience to non-farm professionals

By Leah Call

“Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” is a familiar lesson in understanding and empathy. The Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) offers an opportunity to walk three days in a farmer’s shoes. PDPW’s Agricultural Professional Partnerships (APP) program enables individuals working in the ag industry with limited farm experience an opportunity to roll up their sleeves, throw on some work boots and spend time on the farm.

“Non-farming professionals often come into the industry not knowing anything,” explained Amy Bonomie, PDPW manager of Partnerships & Public Outreach. “This really gives them a safe environment to step back and immerse themselves into modern ag. And they come out of this more knowledgeable, confident and open to listening and working closer with the farmers.”

PDPW launched the program in 2010 at the request of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which wanted to provide training for staff that did not have a farm background. The three-day crash course is ideal for non-farm professionals, such as DNR and other government staff, milk processors, bankers and sales and marketing professionals.

“Not only are we training out in the barns — with the cows, with the calves, looking and touching the feed — we are also training in the classroom and we bring the dairy farmers into the classroom to have real dialogue,” Bonomie said.

The course takes place entirely on farm and is broken into three modules: Fundamentals of Dairy Science; Farming, Fields & Food Fundamentals; and Fundamentals of Dairy Business Management.

Day one touches on cow breeds and anatomy, production traits, genetic selection, culling, calf care and more.

“The first module is really just learning about the dairy industry and the cow. That really gets into the dairy science side of things, the farming systems, the milking equipment,” Bonomie said.

Jennifer Raspaldo, who took the APP training in 2015, found the training invaluable. Raspaldo is a quality assurance professional for OSI Group, a meat processor known for providing beef patties to McDonald’s restaurants. Some of that meat comes from retired dairy cows.

“I focus on our raw material and ingredient vendors,” Raspaldo said. “Part of that is to relate any of the on-farm growing practices – where the beef comes from – to our customers.”

Witnessing the farmer’s focus on animal health was something Raspaldo appreciated. “We can reiterate that to our customers, because we saw firsthand all the checks dairy farms do to put animal health first and foremost,” she said.

Day two covers manure management, crop production, harvest variety and general conservation management and stewardship.

“That really digs into understanding the ecology of farming,” Bonomie said. “Anything from crop rotation, the different products they use, why they use chemicals, different herbicides, forage systems, anything in that realm of ecology and sustainability.”

The Dairy Business Management module looks at the economics of farming, how farmers are paid, production costs, milk-check income and deductions, markets, debt structure and more.

“I think that is probably the biggest ah! moment for people who are not in the dairy business, but working with dairy farmers, really understanding some of their business decisions,” Bonomie said.

PDPW holds two or three APP classes annually between May and September.

The class size is typically 15 to 18 people. Dennis Frame, founder of the University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms program, and Shelly Mayer, executive director of PDPW, teach the classes.

The classroom portion takes place in a workshop or lunch area on farm, and participants alternate between classroom time and applying what they learn in the barn.

“That’s where we get the hands-on experience. We’re in the barn for an hour to two hours and then back in the classroom discussing another topic,” Bonomie said.

APP training can either be open to the public – like a class held in late July – or offered to specific organizations serving the ag industry, such as the OSI Group.

“PDPW was able to customize the session for our group,” Raspaldo said. “They gave a pre-test to gauge attendees’ current knowledge. And they were very flexible to adjusting to the needs of our group.”