Many producers start learning about agriculture at a young age in their own backyard. Yet as future farmers prepare to return to the operation, some families find value in off-farm learning.
“Any time a student can get a different kind of experience, it is beneficial,” says Jessie Potterton, director of the farm and industry short course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The only way for people to learn more is to expose them to different business operations,” Potterton says.
Experience can come in the form of education, internships and careers outside agriculture. The length of time people invest varies, but one thing is sure: It positively affects an individual’s career.
“To be a good farmer, it’s good to have life experiences that help you gain skills that you can bring back to the farm,” says Pat Duncanson, a corn, soybean, small-grain and pork producer with his wife, Kristin, in south-central Minnesota.
Getting Started. The couple’s youngest son, Gabe, plans to take an active role in the farm one day, but right now, he is focused on gaining off-farm experience. An agricultural communications and marketing major at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Gabe plans to graduate in December 2018.
This summer, Gabe had a 10-week internship that allowed him to learn from farmers across U.S. He worked with 12 operations including crops, dairy cows and beef cattle. The internship included four extended stays and several daylong visits. Most farms Gabe visited are led by people with whom Pat and Kristin have built relationships in peer groups.
The farms where Gabe worked for several weeks paid him for his time, though he didn’t ask for compensation or expect it. Instead, the Duncansons wanted to provide Gabe with professional growth.
“It was a great experience to learn about niche areas of agriculture that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” Gabe points out.
Lifelong Learning. Gabe returned with a new outlook on agriculture. The only thing he’d do differently? Visit even more farms.
“The biggest assets of my journey were making connections, meeting new people, trying new practices and watching how the best people in the industry are dealing with challenges,” Gabe says. “Breakdowns happen, but understanding how people handle those issues was rewarding. I learned that there is not always a cookie-cutter way to do things.”
Kristin adds: “We want to encourage young adults to establish relationships and friendships in order to build a network. Even for individuals going back to the family farm, being able to ask questions and compare notes with other people in your industry is important and can carry you through a lifetime of experiences.”