Dirt Rich Episode 19: Family Dairies & Apprenticeships

Dirt Rich

My hope for dairy in the future…is trying to keep these small family farms alive.”

Angie Walter runs an organic, grazing dairy farm with her family in central Minnesota. The family of four raises 100 Norwegian Red, Red Holstein, and Guernsey crosses on 370 acres. Angie is also the Central Minnesota Education Coordinator for the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, which links current and aspiring dairy farmers to support the transfer of knowledge and skills (and sometimes even farms) to the budding generation of dairy farmers. In today’s episode, she shares her experiences in dairy, as a woman in agriculture, and with apprentices.

DGA is actually the first formal agricultural apprenticeship in the US, and there are real benefits for both masters and apprentices who participate. Masters get the value of having skilled, invested labor on their farm, and build a relationship with someone who could be a candidate for potential farm transfer. Apprentices get to develop day-to-day skills and learn from a practicing farmer who can share their past experiences and work through challenges together in real time.

The DGA program can be a hands-on, on-the-job complement to a college program, but is certainly not limited to students. An internship or apprenticeship can be valuable for those considering a career change, and DGA offers a program for veterans.

The “grazing” piece of DGA is not to be ignored. DGA believes that grazing is essential because of the health benefits to the animals, farmer, and soils. Grazing also reduces the amount of off-farm inputs, builds farm profitability, and is beneficial to water resources. The Walters concur–their family farm has been grazed since the 1980s.

Before officially working for DGA, Angie and her husband joined the program as master graziers. They consider their first apprentice a lifelong friend, and continue to keep in touch after he finished his apprenticeship. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but they all learned from their time together–the apprentice introduced new projects to the Walter’s farm, too.

Angie didn’t grow up farming, and finds that many DGA apprentices didn’t either. Regardless, they can still find success with the skills and relationships they develop through their apprenticeships: “It’s really exciting just to see these dreams come true for people, it’s amazing to be a part of it.” This farmer-to-farmer format builds support within the farming community, not only in terms of education and networking, but also emotionally. “A lot of times we think of farming just as physically, but there’s a very big emotional piece there too. You need to have support from people around you,” she says.

Dairy has been a rewarding career for Angie: the family farm lifestyle, seeing a calf grow, and helping new dairy farmers achieve their goals. She hopes to see more women find their place in agriculture, and to see more family farms prosper in the future. “It’s really good to give back. It’s just a good feeling in knowing that we can help someone else who didn’t have the same opportunity.”