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COVID-19 pandemic creates new normal for summer ag internships

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Emily Franke is still working her internship for Mayer Farms Beef in Slinger.

While Wisconsin's ag industry is struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, summer internships have changed or even been cancelled for some college students.

Jenna Broege, a Janesville native who is a senior in University of Wisconsin-Madison's dairy science program, said she waited months to hear her internship with Jones Market in Fort Atkinson was cancelled. Broege was interested in a marketing internship there, where she would work closely with the marketing team on large event promotions.

Broege said she got a call in March, after the pandemic was declared, and was told they were unsure if they could honor her internship because of the instability of the economy and her future role. She did not hear until June that the internship was officially cancelled. Since then, odd jobs like babysitting and cleaning her neighbors' barn have filled her time, she said.

"In my case, it was pretty event-based and marketing-based for those events, and they had to cancel all their events for the summer, so I just think that's where the line (is drawn) if there's going to be large gatherings of people," Broege said.

Emma Gwidt, also a senior in dairy science at Madison, said her internship at ABS Global wasn't cancelled, but instead transformed into a work-from-home position. Gwidt, who is a genetic management systems intern, helps farms make breeding decisions based on genetics and mating suggestions. She does it all from her computer using company software.

Gwidt had already secured her internship last fall. She said she was most looking forward to visiting many farms across the country during the summer, but most of these trips have been cancelled due to domestic travel restrictions. She is staying within the Midwest for now – she's taken trips to Minnesota and Wisconsin farms, although the lost experience still stings.

"I was looking forward to doing some farm visits in New York and California," Gwidt said. "(ABS Global is) definitely trying their hardest to make it the best experience possible by finding different farms to visit than changing their plans ... considering the circumstances."

But some companies are moving forward with business as usual. Mayer Farms Beef still welcomed their two summer interns, Mariah Estrada and Emily Franke, on board. Still, Mayer has shifted their approach to business as they sanitize frequently and have turned their front porch into a retail store to keep people outside. 

Franke, a senior in dairy science at Madison, also said Mayer is having issues filling orders due to processor backups and increased demand during this time. She said the company had to shift their focus to ground beef products rather than beef cuts during the spring because it was difficult to get their regular products to a processor in time.

"When we first opened up when I started my internship at the end of May, I would want to say more than half of the customers we had every week were new customers looking to support local farmers," Franke said. "It's great to know that they want to do that in this pandemic."

Estrada, a senior at Colorado State University studying animal science, said many of her friends who just graduated from college are having trouble finding work in the agriculture industry right now because of the unstable economy. Her roommate was supposed to start working in sales at a cattle supplement company, but the job got cancelled entirely.

"I think the majority of people who recently graduated are struggling," Estrada said. "Quite a few friends ... ended up doing jobs with Amazon or Starbucks or something like that."

Franke said adapting to the situation is the best thing we can all do right now. While Mayer is still open and doing what they normally do, she said they're having to think about many precautions they just wouldn't have taken during normal circumstances.

"One of my friends, she was so excited – she was like, 'I get to go to a farm this week!'" Franke said. "Something that would be typical for every intern in this industry, especially the dairy industry. ... She's finally getting to go to her first farm this week. It's definitely not normal."