The next generation of dairy producers

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — Labor shortages are impacting the nation and industries right here in Jefferson County, including agriculture businesses. As local dairies adapt to a changing industry, so has Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County (CCE). In recognition of the importance that the dairy industry has to Jefferson County’s economy, CCE is renewing its commitment to workforce development. CCE remains dedicated not only to providing high-quality information and technical education to our family dairy farms, but also introducing youth, transitioning soldiers, and even individuals seeking a second career to opportunities in the dairy industry and related agricultural ventures.

Since 1912, CCE has worked to educate local family farms on agricultural topics ranging from dairy management to sowing row crops to food processing. As the county’s direct connection to ongoing research and technical guidance at Cornell University, CCE helps area farmers adapt to ever-changing methods, markets, technology, and consumer demands. At the forefront of these efforts is CCE’s support to local dairies, which remains the largest agricultural sector in Jefferson County with sales approaching $110 million in 2017 (most recent projection numbers). Local dairy processing plants provide quality jobs to hundreds of people. Some of the nation’s best dairy products, ranging from cheddar cheese to ice cream, are made from milk produced by family farms right here in Jefferson County.

On-going changes in the dairy industry require today’s family farms to either grow or diversify to maintain a competitive edge. Today’s dairy farms may have 1500 cows or more being milked multiple times a day. Similarly, farms with smaller herds have turned to manufacturing and selling vertically integrated value-added dairy products such as cheese curds or gelato. Whether selling thousands of pounds of milk from a bulk tank to processors or pints of gelato at a farmer’s market, these businesses can no longer count solely on family members to assist in running their farm. Major employers in our county, family farms hire a diversity of talented employees, ranging from basic laborers to highly trained nutritionists to CDL-licensed drivers. CCE continues to refine its educational programs so that it addresses not only agricultural basics, but also technical training geared towards future and current farm employees working in highly specialized positions.

Working with partners such as Jefferson Community College, CCE is working to ensure that a talented labor pool exists for our local agricultural businesses well into the 21st Century. A significant focus continues to be on ensuring local youth, from elementary school to college age students, understand that viable agricultural career paths exist in their hometown. Whether their pathway into agriculture is through a first job feeding dairy calves or a degree in animal nutrition, CCE is helping students find educational and career paths that keep them right here in Jefferson County.

One example includes a recent Dairy Career Day that was held on Saturday, November 6th at Jefferson Community College. This event was open to students and adults interested in a career in the dairy industry. Participants included students ranging in age from elementary to high school, transitioning soldiers from Fort Drum, and adult job seekers. Representatives from CCE, Great Lakes Cheese, and Old McDonald’s Farm discussed career paths, educational requirements, training, benefits, and how to find jobs in the industry. In the afternoon, Casey Porter, former dairy princess and current herd manager, gave the group a tour of her family’s farm, Porterdale Farms. Casey provided information on how the farm recruits employees, the positions typically available, and how to apply for jobs.

CCE’s FarmOps Program connects transitioning military and veterans to opportunities in agriculture, to include dairy. Our first participant in 2020 is now employed full-time at Birch Creek Dairy. Local farmers have embraced participation in this unique program which connects skilled employees looking to live a rural lifestyle with on-farm jobs that pay competitive wages.

CCE continues to help local dairies find ways to remain profitable as milk prices drop and input costs rise. One example was a Value-Added Dairy webinar held on June 2nd, 2021. With the assistance of the Harvest New York Dairy team, CCE has provided guidance to local farmers interested in value-added dairy production and sales of dairy products directly to local consumers. CCE routinely provides technical support to value-added dairy producers. Grimshaw Farm, a small dairy, now bottles and sells A2A2 milk directly to local consumers from their farm-stand and at local markets. Bechaz Riverdale Cheese is manufacturing high-quality cheese curds and gelato. Old McDonald’s Dairy is now manufacturing ice cream. CCE is working to support these producers not only through training and technical support, but also marketing dairy products through outlets such as the Taste New York Store in Alexandria Bay and the North Star Food Hub in Lyons Falls.

The larger Cooperative Extension system including the North Country Regional Agriculture Team (NCRAT) and the Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development program, has also adapted its educational approaches as the dairy industry has evolved. In 2019, Extension provided extensive training on recent changes in labor laws relating to agricultural workers, addressing issues ranging from overtime to unionization. Recent programming on topics like calf-barn ventilation and heifer management were attended by farm owners and employees alike. CCE has also encouraged participation of dairies in the Dairy Profit Monitor program. The Dairy Profit Monitor is an online business trend analysis tool that provides a monthly snapshot of key operating parameters and farm-level efficiencies.

CCE starts introducing youth as young as age 5 all the way to 18 years of age to understanding where their food comes, opportunities in the field of agriculture, and overall general and specialized agriculture education. During National 4-H Week in October, youth learned about goat’s milk at a CCE event featuring live baby goats (kids). Another example is the 4-H Cloverbud Animal Science program where elementary school students visit local farms for hand-on interactions with livestock. Beginning in November, the 4-H Dairy, 4-H Livestock, 4-H Horse, and 4-H Peeps and Squeaks begin their preparations for the 4-H County Fair in July. The preparations include many hours of educational learning and hands-on experiential learning in animal anatomy, nutrition, marketing and more. Anticipation is high for the 2nd Annual Livestock Auction in July – brought back in 2021 after a 14-year hiatus. The academic and enrichment 4-H afterschool programs provide hundreds of hours annually on agriculture education utilizing the nationally acclaimed 4-H research-based curricula.

If you would like more information about our dairy education program, please contact Mike Nuckols at [315-788-8450, ext. 227]; email [].

–CCE of Jefferson County