Agricultural employees hit the field for higher level of learning
While career opportunities in the agricultural industry abound, fewer and fewer people have personal, on-farm experience. To counter this fact and equip non-farm professionals with practical, hands-on involvement, Professional Dairy Producers® (PDPW) developed the Agricultural Professional Partnerships® program.
Through the APPs program, participants take in more than 20 hours of on-farm professional development during classroom learning and in-field, interactive experiences. First-hand, attendees see dairy farm facilities and equipment including milking parlor systems, free stalls and calf barns, manure-handling facilities, feed-storage areas and more. Additional training topics including animal welfare, consumer trust, environmental and food safety.
APPs attendee Michael Minster is Trader and Ingredient Specialist with LaBudde Group, a commodity feed group serving the agricultural and pet foods industry. Upon starting with LaBudde he had no experience in animal feed or byproducts; when he learned about the APPs program he knew it was for him. “I came to this position with absolutely no background in agriculture so when I read the information on the program I thought, ‘I’ve GOT to do this,’ Minster said. “It was exactly what I needed.”
Having a similar story, Candyce Trautwein, Finance Manager at Zinpro Corporation, the manufacturer of Zinpro Performance Minerals, attended in 2017. “I didn’t have an ag background and wanted to connect with the sales team in a better way,” she said. “The program has helped me have more meaningful conversations with them.”
“During the class, my fellow participants brought up really interesting questions - questions I wouldn’t have thought to ask.”
Not only do APPs participants gain a comprehensive understanding of modern agriculture and farm-management practices, they gain a new networking base. From day one, attendees make connections with industry experts, owners of host farms and ag-industry peers. Trautwein recalled, “A lot of our best networking happened in the vehicles on our way to the farms; we were able to interact with a great cross-section of attendees.”
Russell Rasmussen, Natural Resource Manager at Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, attended the 2011 edition of APPs with several DNR coworkers. “Our goal at the DNR is good environmental outcomes. This program was good for us because it provided more understanding about what producers are faced with financially. It’s also good to know all the decisions dairy producers need to make every day.”
As a result of the program, Rasmussen noted, DNR team members were able to adjust some approaches in their work to better suit both dairy industry and DNR objectives. In addition to government staff serving in local and state roles, “There are many groups that can benefit from this program, including land and water associations, those in engineering, business and technology. There really is a need for this kind of exposure to dairy farming and all that’s involved.”
Sherri Meinholz of Blue Star Dairy is a member of one of the hosting dairies. Their Arlington, Wis. dairy opens their doors to APPs attendees for a segment of the on-site learning. “The on-farm experience for these employees is priceless,” Meinholz stated. “There is no better way for them to learn more about the agriculture industry than to spend a few days with the farmers and professionals who are experts on these topics.”
Attendees agree that the on-farm time has value. “I loved the hands-on sessions,” Trautwein said. “It was great to see first-hand all the things dairy farmers need to do every day. Learning how the anatomy of the cow and her stomachs affects the work we do helped me understand where our team fits into the puzzle.”
Customization is critical
OSI Group, a meat-processing group and major supplier to large well-known food-service and retail clients, enrolled several of its employees in an APPs program that was customized for their group. While many members of the OSI team came into the program with a degree in animal science and a background with ag-production animals, OSI team members discovered the program offered many new insights and allowed them to more effectively communicate facts to their clients and the consumer.
Jennifer Raspaldo, Director of Quality & Materials at OSI Group explained “The training increased our confidence levels. Articulating the expectations regarding cows and the slaughterhouse process is easier now. We learned about the different options available to producers and the animal wellbeing practices. We’re able to communicate with our customer contacts much more effectively.”
“The APPs program also shed light on how we can dispel common myths in the food industry,” Raspaldo continued. “Our team has become more proactive on social media when we see a false statement being shared. Now we can speak to it by saying ‘That’s not what happens; here’s a resource for you,’ so people can get the facts.”
For Glenda Gehl, Director, Member Relations at Land O’Lakes Inc., the opportunity to have the APPs program custom-made for their Member Relations team was a “huge selling point.”
“The majority of our team went through the program,” Gehl said. “Having a team of coworkers go through the program together was impactful. Attending really made clear how intricately all the systems work together: the physiology of the dairy cow, the soil-field-feed component, the business financials and decision-making. Our team didn’t realize these separate pieces are so tightly fit together. They walked away with a much better appreciation for the complex nature between dairy cows, soils and crops, and all the other components that come together in dairy operations.”
Her team members were deeply impacted – particularly those with no prior agricultural experience. “Many who didn’t have an ag background didn’t realize that cows are so complex! They certainly gained a better appreciation for all the cow’s systems and how her needs are so intertwined with the crops, the soil, and the other subjects we covered.”
In addition to the learning, long-term relationships were formed. One of the Land O’Lakes team members engaged in a conversation with APPs instructor and owner of Timber Ridge Consulting, Dennis Frame.
Long after the APPs program had concluded, they picked up their discussion about sustainability and conservation again. As a result, the rural-business and farmer-led organization known as Peninsula Pride was born.
With a primary objective of improving water quality in Kewaunee and southern Door counties in northeastern Wisconsin, Peninsula Pride currently has 10 business members and 50 farmers representing farms of all sizes and half of the cows and tillable acres in the region. It’s the first local collaboration of its kind in a region dealing with decades-long water-quality issues.
APPs can also serve the unexpected purpose of creating a team-building experience. “That’s kind of what it was for our group,” Raspaldo noted. “Even though we’re coworkers, we live in all different parts of the country so we don’t get to spend time together. It was great to have that interaction with coworkers who we only knew by name and email address before. Many of the connections we made during the program continue today.”
The program isn’t just for professionals with little to no experience in agriculture. Because such a broad range of topics is covered even participants who attend the program with a healthy understanding of dairy production come away with a better understanding. “There were gaps in my knowledge that were filled,” noted Rasmussen.
Gehl, who operated a dairy farm for 10 years with her husband before going to work in the industry, agreed. “For me it was interesting to go through the program as an employee and not a dairy producer. It reminded me of all the decisions a dairy producer has to make, and how so many factors are matrixed together,” she recalled. “After the program, I started thinking differently in terms of the way I engaged with dairy members and coworkers.”
As preparations for the 2018 edition of APPs began, Meinholz said, “Educating anyone who is willing to learn more about dairy farming and agriculture is so important to our industry - especially anyone who has a job relating to agriculture but has little to no actual agriculture background. Exposing them to on-farm experiences is one of the easiest, most beneficial ways to help them truly understand what we are talking about and explain things to help them gain knowledge to take back to their workplace.”
Minster noted about his experience, “The day we spent in the field learning more about feed and silage and crop inputs was when the light really went on for me. I saw ways I can help my clients and how I can better provide what they need.”
“What’s great about this program is that it’s accessible to people at all levels of professional experience and ag backgrounds,” said Trautwein. “And it was fun!”