Well, 2019 is over and with it 819 dairies went out of business in Wisconsin alone. Some might say, it is the evolution of the industry; some might say, “They were poor producers.”
Estrada jorge
Leadership Coaching International Inc.

One reality is that financially, not everyone is agile enough to make the short- and long-term decisions necessary to maneuver through the challenging times and cyclicity of today’s industry. There are many lessons learned from the past few years of low milk prices – for those who left and for those who stayed. Let’s take a look at some of those lessons from those who have departed.

“It’s not all about dairying”

Working in the dairy industry all over the U.S., as well as internationally, I have seen the values and principles dairy families derive out of being in this wonderful industry. The cows and this industry have provided for your family for many years. At the same time, you have journeyed through the ups and downs – the industry’s best and worst times. The amount of mental, emotional and physical strain endured is part of the life lessons you’ve learned. Choose to look at those lessons with gratitude and give yourself credit for your endurance. You should be proud of yourself.

Self-worth is often tied to what we do

Our identities and personalities are formed over many years. However, for men specifically, we often associate our identity with what we do professionally. When someone asks what you do, how do you answer? Probably, and proudly, you say, I am a dairy producer or a dairy farmer. The challenge for some who exit the industry is the extent to which their identity and self-worth are tied to the title of dairy producer.

For some, losing that title means a loss of self-worth. Our identity and self-worth give us somewhat of a compass for life and its decisions. Beware to not let a change in what you do reset your internal compass. It’s OK to “lose” who we have been, or at least a part of it, and still take on with confidence what’s coming next. You’re still you even though you’re heading in a different direction.


Self talk can make or break your new direction

The internal conversations you hold with yourself can be productive, destructive or a combination thereof. How self-aware you are? How can you increase your self-awareness before, during and after the decision to exit the industry?

Part of the internal conversation faced when leaving the industry is the one about perceived failure and how to deal with it. Some producers cannot get past an exit from the industry as any interpretation but a failure. Maybe they always imagined themselves dying with their boots on. But anything short of that can still be a success. In the words of the late Warren Bennis, a leadership guru whom I admire: Leaders know when to leave. And that, a dairy producer needs to come to terms with for him or herself.

Every decision comes with emotions

Real leaders understand their own emotions and those of others. Those who leave the industry probably had good and fulfilling times, which brought happiness and joy. Then as they realized the end was near, fear might have governed their being. Arriving at the decision to leave the industry most definitely involves emotions. Some are gratitude for what the industry gave – a good living, values and principles that they have passed on to the next generation.

Other emotions, such as fear of the future or regret, can turn people bitter, causing some to blame others for their fate. Sadly enough, some chose to exit by taking their lives. This points to the importance for each of us to invest time and effort into our mental, emotional, physical and even spiritual wellbeing.

From victim to protagonist

The victim is the person who thinks and feels the world or others are doing this and that to them. They have fallen into a state of resentment and have probably given up on everyone else and maybe even themselves. They blame the outside world for everything, or most everything happening to them, including facing an exit from the industry.

A protagonist, on the other hand, grabs life by the horns. Protagonists envision dreams and then make them happen, and many or most of you have probably done this at one point in time on your dairy. You combined your dream with hard work and made it happen. Maybe that will or won’t happen again as you face a possible exit from the industry. The important lesson to learn is that your mindset, your thoughts and your emotions, identify whether you are trending toward being a victim or a protagonist. Be a protagonist for whatever course you choose and take action from there.

Take time to just be

One hard lesson for dairy producers to learn is how useful and replenishing it can be to spend time away from doing. Since we were kids, we were taught to do our chores. And dairy farmers rightfully know so well to focus a lot on the daily tasks and operational needs of the dairy. But when it comes to really knowing when it’s the right time to move on, it won’t happen in the middle of the daily grind. Take time to get away and find a quiet spot at home or out in nature to think and feel. Maybe even write in a journal. It’s in these moments you’ll find peace with where to go next.

Getting comfortable with letting go

Letting go is a life skill many of us have a hard time practicing. Most times it’s because we were never taught how to do it. Moving on from the dairy industry certainly requires letting go of what you have done for years. This is challenging. “I just can’t let go!” is a common expression I hear. If you want to let go in a healthy way, you need to be able to hold onto something more meaningful, like the principles and values being in this industry certainly instills. As one wise person once said: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

Exiting is a transition

As dairy producers, we know how to transition cows from the dry period on to lactation. You know this time is not easy and often comes with unexpected surprises. Why should we expect any different about navigating our own life’s transitions? A transition is an in-between stage, from the dairy life we once had to what we have decided to do after. It is uncomfortable, full of learnings. Author Bill Bridges describes it best in his transition model (see Figure 1).

Chnge vs transition

One of the primary lessons for producers leaving the industry has been the need to communicate constantly with those around, so that expectations can be managed, decisions made and action take place.

Prepare to build your next chapter

So many times, dairy producers are caught in the day-to-day work of their operations, and rightfully so. It is what pays the bills. However, leaving the business can be accomplished in a number of ways from selling everything and jumping into the void, to executing a detailed, step-by-step exit plan. I recommend a detailed plan. That plan should include:

  • A list of your values and principles

  • A list of your talents and strengths

  • An investigation for how your talents could be applied to a different career (should you stay in ag or do something different?)

  • A financial plan

  • Conversations with family to communicate expectations and make decisions

You are talented and strong

I have learned that no human being is ever truly fulfilled unless they have discovered their natural talents and strengths and put them to good use.

I have used the tool StrengthsFinder (by the Gallup Organization) to help producers discover their innate talents. The tool is a map of 34 talent groups identified by thousands of data points of personality research. The basic self-assessment produces a report of the top five talent themes. It is an awesome tool to use in this work of transitioning your career. You probably won’t be surprised by the results because you know yourself well. But the assessment will help you see other ways to apply your talents.

Producers who have successfully left the industry benefited greatly from finding their core talents and strengths and putting them to work right away. Some have even gone back to school to equip themselves with tools to succeed in their next chapter.

There is no magic formula for when a dairy producer decides to leave the industry, but certainly these learnings can support your own decision and journey.  end mark

Jorge M. Estrada