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MANITOWOC - At an hour most high school students are sound asleep, Joe Powalisz is in a barn milking cows.

No, he doesn't work on his family's farm. Rather, he'll be out milking cows at 3 a.m. several days a week as part of the Manitowoc County Youth Agriculture Apprenticeship program.

Powalisz is completing his second year of the program at Meadowbrook Dairy farm near Francis Creek. His apprenticeship has led to a love of farming, and the Manitowoc Lincoln High School senior has been accepted into the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Farm and Industry short course for next school year.

This school year, Lincoln High School has 47 students part of Youth Apprenticeship, according to coordinator Bonnie Proszenyak.

There are 101 students total in Manitowoc County Youth Apprenticeship, which includes Manitowoc Lincoln, Mishicot, Valders, Manitowoc Lutheran, Roncalli, Reedsville and Two Rivers high schools and McKinley Academy charter school in Manitowoc.

Youth Apprenticeship is a rigorous one- or two-year program that combines academic and technical classroom teaching with mentored on-the-job learning for high school students. Educators say the program opens doors for students by giving them a chance to "try out" a career while working in an adult working environment and receiving on-the-job training.

Powalisz loves his job at Meadowbrook Dairy and says he never would have found it without the Youth Apprenticeship program.

"They are the ones with the connections," he said. "It changed my idea of high school, it helped me find a career I'm excited about."

Powalisz lives in the city of Manitowoc, and his father works as a supervisor for a public utility and his mother at a deli.

He had no real connection to farming or working outdoors until a family friend with a small hobby farm asked the teen a few years ago if he'd like to help out.

Powalisz, now 18, said he liked the work, and decided to work with the apprenticeship program to see if he could find another farm to work for. He tried out another farm in Valders before settling in to Meadowbrook in 2015.

"I didn't grow up on a farm, I just had an interest in it," Joe said. "I started out just milking cows. Now, I'm doing a little bit of everything. I can do just about any job on the farm."

He credits his strong work ethic for helping him succeed.

"I needed to keep busy, and Meadowbrook gives me a lot of variety of things to do," Powalisz said. "All of a sudden, it just clicked, that this is something I would like to do for a career. I fell in love with agriculture."

Joe works at Meadowbrook more than 30 hours a week. He works most mornings until 11 a.m., when he heads to Lincoln High School, and some evenings.

He joins one other Youth Apprenticeship student working at Meadowbrook this year.

Pete Kappelman, who owns the farm, said he's been a part of the program for four years, with three students, from Mishicot, Valders and Lincoln schools. Students show interest for a blend of reasons, he said.

"Sometimes it's an interest in farming," said Kappelman, who owns the farm with wife Shellie. "It's a chance for high school students to try things on for size. But it's more than just a job, there's learning involved. It creates a lot of benefit for the student and for the business."

His farm employs about 20 full- and part-time workers, and he said working with high school students both helps with work on the farm, but also, like Joe, might lead to a lifelong love of farming. Joe hopes to continue working for Meadowbrook once he graduates from high school and completes the UW-Madison program.

With high school students, as most employees, Kappelman said he starts workers with simple jobs before moving them up."

"I tell young people all jobs they do are important, otherwise I wouldn't be paying someone to do them," the farmer said. "As they do those jobs well, they earn their way into other jobs. That's what Joe did. I can send him to work out in a field now. He can work with just about all of our machinery."

That's music to Powalisz's ears.

He's proud of his knowledge and experience, and Kappelman's trust. He's already learned he enjoys working with machinery and working fields more than milking cows. It's a rare high school senior who not only has found a career, but a specialty within that career. For that, Joe thanks Youth Apprenticeship.

He already plans to come back to work on breaks from his coursework at UW-Madison.

"This is what I want to do for the rest of my life," Powalisz said. "I love it."

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