Every couple months I get an e-mail message from a reader who is looking for advice on finding a farm or starting out in the dairy industry. I am so humbled by these messages that I save every one and do my best to answer their questions.

My last message came earlier this week from a young man who's interested in dairy farming. Like me, he's from northern Minnesota, he studied agriculture in college, and he loves the dairy industry. He'd like to be a dairy farmer, but doesn't have an established dairy farm to join or take over. I don't know the young man, but I felt an instant connection.

In his message, he asked how Glen and I made the decision to start farming, what advice we'd offer to someone considering farming and whether we'd recommend dairy farming in spite of the industry's volatility.

Here's my response:

 

Dear Aspiring Dairy Farmer,

The answer to your question about how we decided to start farming is not short. For me personally, and I think the same is true for Glen, I feel called to farm. After college, I worked a couple of different jobs, but I always felt like something was missing. It was like there was no purpose to my work. I missed the animals, I missed working outside, and I missed the independence of farm work.

We would spend every available weekend at either my home farm or Glen's home farm, helping with the farm work. And every time my dad mentioned selling the cows, it would hit me like a sucker punch. Glen and I talked about one day farming, but only after we had worked at our off-farm jobs for a couple more years.

A few years shy of our plan, my dad offered us an opportunity to try dairy farming. Honestly, it was a challenging decision. Glen didn't feel ready. I felt like it was the opportunity of a lifetime and that if we passed it up we might never get started farming.

Once we had decided to give it a try, there was still a lot to figure out. We visited some friends of ours from college who were dairy farming, put together a business plan, took out a small loan for some equipment and cattle, and, finally, took the plunge.

That was exactly six years ago now. Looking back, here's what helped us and what I would offer for advice.

• Find a good farm business management instructor. A FBM instructor can help you create a business plan, evaluate different farming options (i.e. renting versus owning), prepare financial statements and analyze your operation.

• Find a good lender who understands dairy farming. A good lender will help you learn to use debt wisely to get started and, later, improve your operation.

• Make sure you and your significant other are on the same page. I'm not sure what your relationship status is, but dairy farming can put stress on a relationship. The love of your life doesn't necessarily have to want to farm with you, but that person at least needs to understand your passion for dairy farming and the time commitment that would go with it. 

That said, if you're still single, keep in mind that it can be challenging to find a partner when you're married to the cows. So, if you don't want to be a single farmer, be sure to plan for time away from the farm to allow you to meet new people and develop (and maintain) relationships.

• Create a good network of supporters. This can include your significant other, your family, your friends, classmates from college and anyone else who is supportive of what you want to do. One of our biggest initial challenges was dealing with the people who didn't think we should farm. While it's good to be able to answer the question of why you want to farm, I would suggest avoiding doubters as much as possible.

• Ask for help. Whether you find a farm to work into or start out on your own, never stop asking questions and asking for help. If you start out on your own – which, despite what others say, is possible – keep in mind that it can be hard to run a dairy farm by yourself, especially if you're farming land as well. Find a relief milker or someone to help with chores, if for no other reason than at least you won't always be working alone.

• If you find a farm to work into, make sure you have your agreement clearly documented and have an exit strategy. Your farm business management instructor and lender can help with this.

• Visit as many farms as possible and keep an open mind. Every dairy farm has its own magic formula of what works and what doesn't work. One of the benefits of starting out on your own is that you're not tied to doing things the way your dad or granddad did, but don't be afraid to ask experienced farmers for advice. 

Would I recommend dairy farming? Without a doubt, my answer is yes.

Volatile prices can be challenging, but a good FBM instructor and lender can help you position yourself for the lean years. For us, investing in the cows, rather than in equipment, has been a worthwhile strategy, but you'll have to find a strategy that works for you.

Sadly, though, I don't believe volatile prices are the biggest challenge our generation of dairy farmers will face. Maintaining our freedom to farm is now our biggest battle. If you decide to start dairy farming, you will need to add consumer education to your list of responsibilities.

Overall, though, the benefits of dairy farming far outweigh the challenges. Dairy farming, for me, is incredibly fulfilling work. The connection to the animals and the land; setting and meeting performance goals; the awesome knowledge that our farm is feeding people; and being a part of the greater dairy community are just a few examples of what I find rewarding. And there really is no better place to raise a family.

I wish you all the best as you consider farming and sincerely hope that one day you will be able to call yourself a dairy farmer. I would be happy to answer any other questions you have and, if you ever make it down this way, I'd love to show you our farm.

 

Sincerely,

Sadie

 

I'll close this column with a request: If you're a dairy farmer looking to exit the industry, please consider working with a young person trying to enter the industry. The dairy industry needs forward-thinking, passionate young farmers. But those young farmers can't get started unless they have a place to farm.