BELLEVILLE, Pa. — Jessica Matthews wasn’t raised on a farm. Until she started working on Hameau Farm, she’d never even been around dairy cows.
She grew up in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the U.S. She got a degree in psychology and worked in that field.
A growing interest in the food system led her to a field of a different kind. One sprinkled with red and white dairy cows in central Pennsylvania.
Matthews began a dairy grazing apprenticeship in 2017 through the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. When she’s done, she’ll be a certified journey dairy grazier. That qualifies her to work as a herd manager on another farm.
“I wouldn’t have been able to get into dairy at all without the dairy grazing apprenticeship,” Matthews said. “You could put a couple chickens in your backyard or grow a small garden. But dairy isn’t something you can step gently into.”
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The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, or PASA, administers two formal apprenticeship programs: dairy grazing and diversified vegetable. The national Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship is registered with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. The vegetable program is the only agriculture apprenticeship registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.
The idea was to take the apprenticeship model the way its been applied to traditional skilled trades and apply it to agriculture, said Aaron deLong, coordinator for PASA’s dairy apprenticeship.
3,712 hours of on-the-job training
288 hours of related technical instruction (courses available online through the Managed Grazing Innovation Center)
2,784 hours on-the-job training
216 hours of related technical instruction (workshops, field days, conferences, formal classes, farmer networking opportunities)
The apprenticeships have been called a win for everyone involved. Farmer mentors, called masters, get committed workers who want to learn the job and the industry.
The apprentices get paid to learn a new trade through a combination of hands-on work and technical training. A training manual lays out the skills and core competencies the apprentice needs to learn, deLong said.
More than 90% of the apprenticeship consists of on-farm work with their mentor, but each program has required formal technical training as well. The training can take the form of classes, workshops, seminars or conferences.
Combine all those things together and what do you get?
“You’ve got a powerful education system that isn’t deliverable in any other way,” deLong said.
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PASA partnered with the national Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship in 2016 to bring the program to Pennsylvania. It was started by a group of Wisconsin farmers in 2010 and is found now in a dozen states.
It takes about two years to complete as a full-time apprentice. So far, there has been one graduate of the program. Three more are expected to finish sometime this year, deLong said.
Once the masters and the potential apprentices are accepted into the program, they find each other through an online portal. Apprentices can see profiles of the farms and farmers and vice versa. They can look for people in their area or look for different traits about the farm or person that are appealing to them.
One of the keys to a good apprenticeship experience is being matched with the right mentor, said Dan Dalton, coordinator of the diversified vegetable apprenticeship. That’s why they let the process play out by itself on a rolling basis.
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Matthews found her match in Audrey “Gay” Rodgers, owner of Hameau Farm, in Mifflin County. Rodgers has been milking a small herd of registered Ayrshires for more than 30 years.
She was not concerned that Matthews was a complete dairy novice. In addition to the dairy farm, Rodgers hosts summer camps on the farm for girls ages 8-14. She’s seen girls unfamiliar with livestock become capable animal handlers over the course of a couple weeks at the camps.
Matthews said she was overwhelmed at first, trying to learn the ropes of a dairy farm. She felt like she was always doing something wrong. Luckily, Rodgers was a patient teacher.
“Whenever I’d do something, Gay has feedback for her rationale. It’s not just ‘don’t do this that way.’ She explains why to do something a certain way,” Matthew said.
“I’ve learned you have to answer the why,” Gay added. “If you have the why already, there’s a whole lot more buy-in. And I do not mind the rapid fire questions. I think that’s how both of us learn.”
And the nature of dairy farms gave Matthews new chances to get it right every day.
“The nice thing about the dairy farm is the cows like the routine,” she said. “If you got it wrong one day, you just have to do the exact same thing the next day. So you get another try at it.” she said.
After she learned the basics, she learned the business side of things. Rodgers said Matthews was instrumental in helping the farm get its license to sell raw milk, with the hope of making their milk more valuable. She also helped with a soil health benchmark study on the farm. Matthews is a part-time apprentice, but hopes to finish the program this year.
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The diversified vegetable apprenticeship was developed by PASA. They’d heard from member farmers that skilled laborers were needed to work on their farms, but that kind of person was getting harder to find, Dalton said.
After seeing the success of the dairy apprenticeship, the association decided to create a similar one for diversified vegetable operations. It was approved by the state department of labor in March 2019.
The program has four apprentices so far. It takes 18 months to complete, if the program is done full time through the winter. Some farms may break it up into several growing seasons if they don’t work through the winter, Dalton said.
“A lot of people romanticize vegetable farming,” said Aimee Good, a master grower. “They think it’s not that difficult, if they’ve had a backyard garden. There’s so much more to running a production farm. People who just try to do it without learning from someone else are going to struggle. This program really sets people up for success.”
Good is training an apprentice, David Darling, at the farm she runs with her husband, John, in Lehigh County. The Goods themselves were apprentices on a farm in New England before they started their own. They now run a 200+ member organic CSA.
In the vegetable apprenticeship, participants must have at least one season of experience before starting. So Darling started working on the Good Farm in 2018 to learn the basics of the harvest.
His second season — his first as an apprentice — he learned more complex tasks. He knew the “hows” so he next learned the “whys.” He ran the harvest, recorded weights and took over farm research projects. Over the winter, he took part in planning, seed ordering, budgeting and taxes.
Aimee Good said they’ve informally taught people for years and have had past employees go on to manage their own operations. But the apprenticeship makes it a more complete and rigorous experience, especially with the training manual as a guide. On top of that, the certification gives growers a leg up in the industry.
“There are vendors that, once you have the apprenticeship certification, will give you higher priority, better rates,” Good said. “Or if you go to manage a farm somewhere else, you have this accreditation. You have this experience. It’s really great for everybody, both the master growers and the apprentices.”
For more information on the apprenticeships, visit pasafarming.org or call 814-349-9856.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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Master graziers needed in Western Pa.
The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture is looking for master graziers on the western side of the state. The furthest dairy to the west is in Blair County.
Do you qualify?
At minimum, you must have five years of experience in managed grazing. On top of that, master graziers should abide by the spirit and letter of the organic rule, meaning at least 30% of the herd’s dry matter intake is from pasture and no less than half an acre per grazing animal.
The farmer should be able to deliver the knowledge within the training manual to the apprentice, like managing dairy cattle in a grazing system, pastures, milk operations, farm business operations and nutrition. Each farmer that applies is considered on a case-by-case basis by the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship’s National Apprenticeship Committee.
There’s no cost to participate in the program itself, although you have to be able to pay the apprentice at least $8 an hour for their on-farm work throughout the program.
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