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CIAS Research Report

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A strong dairy economy has both economic and social benefits for Wisconsin. While support for beginning dairy farmers is not the only way to sustain and increase dairy productivity, it is an important strategy that can renew the dairy industry with new farmers. There are many challenges in attracting new people to the dairy business. New dairy farmers often face high start-up costs for land, equipment, and facilities. Volatile milk prices, long hours, and hard work reduce the appeal of a career in dairy farming. In the 1990s, prospective dairy farmers could readily find off-farm jobs that often paid better than dairying. To better understand the start-up strategies used by beginning dairy farmers, a research team from the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies (PATS) and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) at UW-Madison surveyed 321 beginning dairy farmers in 1996. The research team then supplemented this survey research with 30 indepth case studies of beginning farmers from a wide range of backgrounds. From this research, a picture emerged showing a wide range of possibilities for getting established in dairying. Dairy farmers can successfully start at different ages and stages in their careers. They can employ a range of production strategies at different scales. Some take over the family farm, while others start out on their own farms. Some enter farming as a second career. Despite all of these differences, the most important characteristic of the successful beginners in this study was the ability to negotiate a good fit between their resources, skills, and farm and family goals. Public and private sector agencies and businesses can help beginning farmers develop “smart” entry strategies based on clear assessments of their resources, skills, and goals.