MADISON, Wis. — An agricultural apprenticeship program that began in Wisconsin in 2010 has spread to 10 states and is registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship partners experienced farmers with beginners, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

More than half of today’s farmers are over the age of 55, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. The mentorship program aims to encourage more young people to enter the industry as older farmers retire.

The program requires new farmers to complete a certain number of on-the-job training hours while checking off certain lessons in a workbook. The experienced farmers pay their students a salary and some offer bonus incentives, such as offering equity in the farm or a future transfer of the farm’s ownership.

Joe Tomandl founded the program and said it’s based on classic guild apprenticeships.

“We’re trying to figure out, how can we bring more farms back onto the landscape?” Tomandl said. “How can we create more opportunities for independent business people to fulfill their dreams and aspirations and get on a dairy?”

Farming knowledge used to be passed on through families over generations, no more, Tomandl said.

“I mean, we just are not seeing the sons and daughters that are interested in coming back to the dairy. So, much of that transition of knowledge is not happening,” Tomandl said. “But there are enough people outside family looking at coming into dairy someday. So that’s where this formal process is important.”

Scott Mericka, co-owner of Grass Dairy and Uplands Cheese Company, is mentoring Matt Nielsen through the program. Nielsen will undergo 4,000 hours of training during the two-year program.

“I am a person who asks a ton of questions, like 400 questions a day,” said Nielsen. “But Scott is so patient with me. He almost rarely says, ‘I don’t know,’ which is something I appreciate with his vast bank of knowledge.”


Information from: Wisconsin Public Radio, http://www.wpr.org