Cheese is my cow, and I am her person. She and her twin sister, Cream, (from Bagel, of course) were standouts from day one. They were alert little calves, good eaters and always around each other during heiferhood and in the lactating cow pen. Then, Cream got sick after calving last lactation and didn’t make it. Cheese acted lost as she seemed to be without a lot of other cow buddies.
    That’s when she started looking for me in the holding pen and parlor. Cheese usually tries to get into the first parlor stall and moos until I come out from the calf feeding room to give her a pat or a neck scratch. She wants the extra attention. If I am milking, she waits in the holding pen until I go up the steps and give her some words of encouragement.
    So in a way, I mentor Cheese, giving her that little spark she needs to go on her bovine way. Likewise, the people in our lives can mentor us and make life easier to figure out, showing us direction.
    From our earliest days, parents, grandparents, siblings and other relatives and friends are our mentors who show, tell and put useful ideas in front of us for our consideration. As we go through our childhood, we have faith leaders, teachers, coaches and volunteers in 4-H and FFA who will guide our ways and help us find our skills, talents and passions in life.
    As we reflect back on how we got to where we are now, it is interesting to think about those who have mentored us. In my case, there were so many people within the dairy industry who helped me, guided me and took an interest in my path. I was reflecting on this when Minnesota dairy icon Larry Tande passed away in late March. I did not grow up in Tande’s Steele County to be actively mentored by him, but many of the 4-H kids who were the leaders I admired were, and they in turn mentored me. Much of his work as an extension agent, and later as he took on the role of state livestock coordinator and regional specialist, touched my years in 4-H. The judging term sheets, the letters of what to expect at the Minnesota State Fair with my dairy trips and the shows I participated in had Tande’s excellence in leadership and dedication intact. He led by example and was a special light in many people’s lives.
    Many others had a hand at shaping my interest and pursuit of the dairy industry as a 4-H’er, college student, writer for dairy publications and dairy farmer. These days, as I dairy farm and volunteer, I am surprisingly in the role of mentoring others.
    When some of the kids who lease dairy animals from our farm call me their mentor, it gives me a pause. “Who, me?” I think to myself. I just tell them what I think is best or might be helpful and then let them learn for themselves. Sure, maybe I try to educate a little bit about animal care, why we do things a certain way and point out the nutritional qualities of milk when I can, but it is not really making a difference. Or, maybe it is.
    I recently watched a Dairy Girl Network seminar on being a mentor, sponsor or ally to others. Some of a mentor’s functions are listed:
    – Shares wisdom and perspective with the mentee who has less experience.
    – Imparts knowledge and shares insight and experience.
    – Serves as a role model.
    – Helps to expand network.
    – Increases mentees sense of competence and self-worth.
    – Provides support and feedback on how to improve.
    For another way to look at mentoring, here is a recent Facebook post to think about:
    “When a flashlight grows dim or quits working, you don’t throw it away. You change the batteries. When a person messes up and finds themselves in a dark place, do you cast them aside? Of course not. You help them change their batteries. Some need AA – attention and affection. Some need AAA – attention, affection and acceptance. Some need C – compassion. Some need D – direction. And if they still don’t seem to shine, simply sit with them quietly and share your light.”
    I really like these helpful ideas. Not every way of mentoring works for every person (or in Cheese’s case, for every cow). You need to adapt to meet the needs of the person and where they are in their journey.
    Serve as a mentor when you can and seek out those who can mentor you. When someone is willing to give you this kind of encouragement and support in your life, be sure to say thank you.
    Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, Minnesota, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.