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Future Shock

Moo U: Connecting America’s Dairy Farm Schools and Colleges

University Business, Feb 2013

Over the holidays, Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Lincoln, riveted the nation’s attention on the role President Lincoln played in emancipation. Yet, little attention was given to the role that Lincoln played in empowering and educating the small family farming and industrial working class. Nor was there any celebration of the Morrill Act creating America’s first land-grant universities – missioned to provide higher education opportunities to agricultural and industrial workers.

Leading the edge in diversified agribusiness and agricultural education are such venerable institutions as Cornell, State University of New York, University of Massachusetts, University of Wisconsin, Rutgers University (N.J.), Penn State, and the University of Vermont and Vermont Technical College, Massasoit and Greenfield Community Colleges (Mass.) and Norfolk County Agricultural High School (Mass.).

These path-finding aggie-tech colleges and land–grant research universities have educated and trained small family-owned dairy farmers by providing certifications, extension services and natural resource management capacity for conserving planet earth. This grassroots evolution has placed America’s agricultural universities and Aggie-Tech schools in a strong position to help co-develop small family farming and dairy production, yield, distribution, consumption, and nutrition for healthy kids and healthy communities.

In point of fact, diversified agribusiness has fast become a key growth area as dairy farmers sell their products - gourmet yogurt, cheeses, and other produce – directly to consumers. From farmer’s markets and roadside dairy farm stands along rural highways, we are witnessing a quiet resurgence of the role the small, family-owned, dairy farm plays in our daily lives. Indeed, America has a new foodie fascination with dairy, natural, and nutritional whole foods, and holistic wellness.

Funded by federal, state, and corporate support, a new breed of entrepreneurial small, family-owned dairy farms is sprouting up across the United States, bringing the best, fresh, quality dairy products to market, generating higher yields and more net income for farmers, while strengthening the indigenous economy.

At Cornell, world-class plant breeding researchers collaborated with animal science faculty to offer a new alfalfa strain for feeding cows. This highly digestible variety is predicted to increase milk production significantly. This kind of return-on-learning (ROL) goes straight to the bank to recapture an even larger return-on-investment (ROI).

SUNY Cobleskill’s Animal Science program is the recognized winner of four national dairy expositions. Uniquely, SUNY Cobleskill is actively preparing for the annual Dairy Fashion Sale, an event designed to market approximately 100 high-quality dairy calves, heifers, cows, and embryos. Cobleskill Professor John Tryon explains the ROL on this event nicely: “The experience teaches teamwork. The event is also a networking tool for the club members to go out and talk to farmers and potential employers.”

Fueling the workforce, Chobani, a fast growing, America-based, Greek yogurt company, provides jobs for SUNY Morrisville students who earn Associate and Bachelor’s degrees in a number of agricultural sciences. Founder and sole owner of Chobani Yogurt, Hamdi Ulukaya, moved from Turkey, where his family ran a dairy farm, to attend the University of Albany. Since 2005, Morrisville’s largest dairy product processor has grown from five employees to 1,200. With campuses in Brockton, Canton, and Middleboro, Massasoit Community College is now developing new higher education partnerships and post-secondary vocational collaborations with the Norfolk County Agricultural Technical High School to offer workforce training opportunities driven by the agricultural needs of farmers located on the South Shore of the Bay State.

Best known for its quality cheese, the University Of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research explores functional characteristics, flavor, and physical properties of cheese products and other milk components used as ingredients and as finished products. Distinguished for their research on dairy protein processing and separation procedures, the University of Wisconsin center employs more than 30 researchers and scientists.

Yet with all these achievements, the long-term sustainability of small family dairy farms could still be at risk if not protected by dynamic, timely, public, and educational policy initiatives – incentivizing quality, innovation, yield, and productivity.

At closure of our small, family-owned dairy farm conversation, we learned from former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture and current USDA State Director, Jay Healy that “The average age of farmers in this [New England] region is 59. It’s crucial that we train, educate, and nurture our young people to take over the farms of that aging workforce. It's not only good for business, but it’s good for our communities.”

Fortunately, an elite group of university extension services, state and community colleges, and postsecondary aggie-tech institutions are now leading a breathtaking agribusiness turnaround—sowing the seeds of the next generation of small, yet sustainable, family-owned dairy farms.