Oregon's dairy industry seems to be bucking a trend that plagues other agricultural sectors nationwide. While the average age of farmers in general is going up, there appears to be an influx of young dairy operators in Oregon that is slowing down the graying of the state's dairy farmers overall. The enthusiasm of youth is helping the industry keep up with the times, both economically and environmentally.
While current statistics are hard to come by, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that Oregon dairy's demographics are changing.
"I believe there is a much larger percentage of young people getting into the dairy industry in Oregon compared to other states," says Jim Krahn of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association (ODFA).
"At our latest convention, we had dairy farmers from Washington and Idaho in attendance and they commented on how they couldn't believe the high number of young people attending."
The Oregon Department of Agriculture has noticed as well. ODA's Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) Program hosted a manure management field day in late April for CAFO permit holders and operators.
The field day focused on calibrating different types of manure application equipment, measuring and recording manure nutrient content, and implementing various cultural practices that help make manure management successful.
"For our staff, one of the most gratifying parts of the field day was the participation by the next generation of operators," says Wym Matthews, ODA's CAFO Program manager.
"We had 16 operators under the age of 30. It is very important to note that the younger generation took the time to attend this activity. We were impressed by their interest level and questions."
Certainly, some of the younger attendees were strongly encouraged to attend the field day by their fathers – the primary dairy operator. But others took their own initiative to be there and learn more about successful manure management.
"We all know the future of successful agricultural operations depends on cultivating the next generation of farmers," says Matthews.
"If Oregon's future CAFO operators are like this group of young individuals, Oregon's CAFO agriculture operations will be in very capable hands."
Dairy farming in Oregon has survived as well as any state for a couple of reasons.
First, the growth in organic dairying, while not unique to Oregon, has provided a market for a value-added product. Secondly, the Tillamook area continues to provide the opportunity for farmers to graze their dairy cattle – something that's not always an option in other states.
Younger dairy farmers are coming into the business from different directions.
"Dairy farming is what I've always known, " says Matt Perrin of Perrin Family Dairy in Woodburn.
"It's part of who I am. In a way, I've always known it is something I would do. But I also didn't want to see all of my dad's hard work just disappear. Dad said he would love it if I continued the farm, but only if I wanted to."
Perrin's education included a degree in general agriculture from Oregon State University. He's also attended numerous conferences and trainings, including the ODA field day. But it was the life-long job training gained by working alongside his father that has most given him the skills to be successful.
Perrin has been a very active leader as well. He currently is a board member of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association.
Pete Mahaffy is just as active and interested in Oregon's dairy industry, but it wasn't always that way. He and his wife Kelly currently run a 200-acre dairy near Coos Bay.
"I grew up on my family's farm, but I had no interest in returning when I left for OSU," says Mahaffy, who received a general agriculture degree but minored in horticulture.
"The one moment that changed my direction was a guest lecture on intensive rotational grazing. It seemed like a perfect theory for the river valley that the farm was located on east of Coos Bay. That led me to work for an organic dairy farmer following graduation, where I could learn my craft prior to returning home."
Mahaffy's parents did not encourage him to return home because they knew dairying was a hard life. Still, he made the decision to be part of the next generation of dairy farmers in Oregon.
"The attitude of the dairy operators has changed significantly in the last nine years since I returned home," says Mahaffy. "Some thought organic was just a flash in the pan moment, but the industry has matured to the point that there is confidence in its long term stability."
Both Perrin and Mahaffy agree that the younger generation of Oregon dairy farmers has a high interest in best management practices and good stewardship. That doesn't mean their parents do not share that interest. But with additional education and better technology, the new wave of operators may have an advantage.
"These young people are concerned about the product they are producing, the way their animals are handled, and environmental stewardship" says ODFA's Krahn. "They realize that dairy farming today is not just milking cows. It's a well-rounded approach that includes taking care of the animals, the land, and the water."
Young dairy farmers are also being molded into leaders.
ODFA offers a dairy leadership program to help engage the next generation. The program provides media training, meetings with legislators, and opportunities to attend industry meetings. It's all part of giving young dairy farmers as many tools as possible to succeed in today's fast-changing world of agriculture.
"The whole process we've set up helps make these young dairy farmers feel welcome and they are encouraged to be involved," says Krahn.
For the Oregon consumer, it's good to know there is a new wave of dairy farmers arriving on the scene. PD
—From Oregon Department of Agriculture news release