If there is one thing I learned while growing up on the family dairy, it’s that farmers wear a lot of hats. No, I’m not talking about all the free ball caps stashed on the shelf in the coat closet. I am talking about the occupational hats farmers wear.

Yes, they are the farmer who takes care of the cows, but they also tend to be the plumber, electrician, vet tech, concrete finisher, mechanic, accountant and whatever else is needed. Farmers are some of the most versatile and knowledgeable people I know. That’s why it was intimidating when I quit my full-time job as a middle-school teacher to join the family dairy and call myself a farmer.

I grew up on the farm. I worked there part time off and on since before I could remember, but joining that league full time? That was kind of scary, especially as I had no formal animal science or agriculture education. I had been a middle-school math and science teacher for the last seven years. How was that going to be much help in working on the family dairy? There were definitely employees who knew more about the cows and processes than I did. When the nutritionist came to visit, I didn’t know half the jargon he was saying, and don’t get me started on the salesmen. I was worried I didn’t have anything to bring to the table other than just another body to do chores.

At first, I probably wasn’t wrong. I did just do the chores. Like any job, it takes time to get into a routine and find a groove. I learned something new every day (I’m much more comfortable talking with the nutritionists now) and was loving it, but I was also still looking for a way to add my personal talents to the job.

With the pandemic in place, I started out a little slow. However, with nothing to go out and do, I began sharing about our dairy on Instagram. My creative side that I previously channeled into lesson planning in the classroom was easily redirected into writing posts and taking photos and videos. I found that many of the consumers I connected with didn’t know information I thought was common sense. It turns out, it was just common to me because I grew up with it.

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Then as things began to open up, we would have the occasional visitor on the farm, and it became my responsibility to show them around. Speaking to a group of people is second nature to me after talking to groups of 20 students all day. Now, I am involved with our dairy checkoff and I am participating in the Adopt-a-Cow program to interact with students through the Dairy Excellence Foundation.

I discovered that although I am not in a classroom anymore, I am still very much an educator at heart. Not only that, I am even more passionate about my subject. Educating the public about dairy and agriculture has become one of my “hats” I’ve been able to wear and take responsibility for around the farm. It has given me a sense of pride and the way I can contribute my individual skills and talents.

These feelings are ones that any employee or family member wants to feel when working at a job. They are what make a good team member a great one (and one who will keep showing up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows). Maybe it’s time to take another look at the talents around your farm and what hats everyone is wearing. Is there a new way to use them to everyone’s advantage?

Take my mom, for example. Before she was in charge of the calf program on the farm, she was a medical technologist at the hospital. She drew blood on patients and tested it to direct the doctors’ treatment.

When our calf program moved to group housing, we were having issues with illness, and her medical skills came into play. After some research and discussion with our vet, she began drawing the blood on every calf to find its hematocrit and determine if it was anemic. I remember how excited she was when her centrifuge was delivered. She uses her talents to collect the data and to dose the calves with iron and other vitamins based off these levels. Without her previous experience and passion to push forward, this improvement to our calf routine may have been longer in coming – or not discovered yet.

I suppose the moral of the story is: Have a conversation with team members and see if there is a hat on the shelf somewhere that it’s time for them to dust off. Maybe someone has experience crunching numbers or office organization. Is there a family member who would like to join the farm but is interested in mechanics and machinery more than caring for animals? Farming is a very versatile operation, and there are multiple areas where someone can try to fire their interests. I know I will be around a while wearing my current hats and possibly trying on a few more for size. end mark

Stacy Rethman