Growing the needed workforce
Paul teaches high schoolers necessary farm skills
Kevin Paul (front) explains how he wants high school employee Tahtankka Damm to continue harvesting the field after a training on chopping haylage at Paul’s dairy farm near Stetsonville, Wisconsin. The dairy farmer hires students for the workforce on his 104-cow dairy. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
STETSONVILLE, Wis. – Kevin Paul is a teacher by nature which makes him a natural at cultivating a workforce which has served him well: high school students.
Paul, who milks 104 cows on his dairy farm near Stetsonville, has come to rely on a workforce comprised of high-school aged students. Before embarking on his dairy farming career 25 years ago, Paul taught agriculture in Rib Lake.
“I enjoyed that, but I decided to leave that to dairy farm because all roads lead to this,” Paul said. “If I decide I don’t want to do this tomorrow, I can do anything.”
Hiring students suits Paul’s labor needs and helps alleviate the stress of a labor shortage when someone moves on to the next step in life.
“I’m kind of a two-person farm, and the problem with that is that whenever one person leaves, you have a mess,” Paul said. “This way, we always have a well-trained crew. I’ve always had high school kids and had really great crews.”
Paul carefully recruits his work crew with many being friends and relatives of his past workers. His current workforce includes six students.
“Only once have I ever placed an ad looking for someone,” Paul said. “Some of these kids, I have been watching as they have been growing up. Last year, when the pandemic hit, it was kind of a nice spring because all of the sudden I had all of these kids needing something to do, and I had plenty of help.”
Paul tries to keep a rotation of students to allow for more experienced workers to mentor younger workers.
Tahtankka Damm, 18, is a recent graduate of Medford High School and has worked on Paul’s dairy for two years. Damm will attend the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to study agricultural engineering, and Paul has begun training two new employees on the farm to help fill the vacancy.
“I enjoy working with the cows and being in the fields,” Damm said. “I’ve gotten the promotion to learn to drive the new tractor and run the chopper this year. I have learned a lot working for Kevin and gained a lot of real-world experience that will help me out in whatever I end up doing in the future.”
Erich Moretz, 14, will be a freshman at Medford High School this fall and is one of the newer members of Paul’s work force, milking and feeding calves.
“Learning to work with other people as a team has been really helpful for me,” Moretz said.
Because of his background in education, Paul takes teaching teamwork and working safely seriously. June 3 was no exception as Paul set out to teach three employees to do various jobs in the process of putting up first-crop hay, including teaching them to merge, chop and operate the bagger.
Kayden Dassow, 17, is one of the workers learning to put up haylage for the first time. Dassow will be a senior at Medford High School when school resumes this fall and has worked for Paul for nearly a full year.
“I have learned a lot working here, and I think that it has made me a more well-rounded person and will help me make decisions for what I want to do after high school,” Dassow said.
Dassow said he appreciates the ability to grow in his duties on the farm and has graduated from simple milking duties to mixing feed. He is also becoming more involved in fieldwork, a proposition that excites him.
“One of my favorite things is to play, ‘How much does this cost?’ I’m always asking them,” Paul said as he mixed the inoculant for the haylage, asking Dassow for his guess as they worked to set up the bagger. “It makes them understand the value and importance of the things we work with on the farm.”
The students all appreciate Paul’s approach to teaching.
Garrett Searer, 17, will also be starting his senior year at Medford High School in the fall. Searer has been working on Paul’s farm for nearly a year. Searer said he likes feeding calves and is enjoying the prospect of learning to do more in the fields. He spent the first day of haylage making learning to merge the windrows.
“I have learned a lot from (Paul),” Searer said. “He takes the time and breaks things down and really teaches you what he wants you to do. That really helps you feel like you are able to do a good job.”
Paul admits he gets more from his students than just a workforce, and the relationships he develops with his workers is important to him. Paul said he often snaps photos of the boys at work to share with their parents.
“They are good kids and a fun bunch to work with,” Paul said. “What is interesting is when I trace back to how each of them came to me. For example, Kayden is here because he is Garrett’s friend; Garrett is here because his two cousins worked for me. A lot of times they’ll say, ‘I know a guy,’ and that is how it all comes together.”
Those feelings are mutual for the boys. They said working together as a team on Paul’s farm has been rewarding for them. All agreed they have learned far more from Paul than the ins and outs of dairy farming, but have learned a great deal about life in general.
“There are a lot of life lessons we have learned here,” Dassow said. “Kevin is the most easy-going guy, and he makes working here enjoyable. If you make a mistake, he doesn’t get angry; he calls it a learning experience and helps you learn from it. Working here has been a learning experience in more ways than one.”