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Life on the farm

WILLMAR - Kerrie Reinert hoists buckets of ground corn into the box of a well-used farm truck, slams the tailgate shut, hops into the cab and heads off to feed a pen of Holstein heifers. It's a little past noon and she's finished the 5:30 a.m. milking on the rural Willmar dairy farm where she works as a herdsman. She has a long list of chores to do before she goes back to the barn of 240 cows for the evening milking.

With a wide grin and a slight bow to her blond head, Reinert acknowledges she puts in some long days of physically demanding work. She also gets dirty. And she loves it.

It's not what one would expect from a city girl who didn't grow up on a farm and who had no dairy farmers in her family.

But it's also not unusual.

Brant Groen, dairy management instructor at Ridgewater College in Willmar, said an increasing number of his students who have no background in agriculture are going through his two-year program and finding abundant job opportunities "with respectable wages" on dairy farms in Minnesota and surrounding states.

"Most of my students are from the farm or a farm-related background, but I'm getting more and more students who aren't," Groen said. "And they're doing just fine."

The program includes four short internships that help the students decide whether a career on the farm is right for them. It also provides good training.

"We put them on a farm that's patient and willing to help them grow and get them excited about the industry," said Groen.

One of his 2006 graduates grew up in Chicago and is now working on a dairy farm in Minnesota City with the potential to work into a partnership, Groen said.

Family dairy farms are getting bigger and there is a growing need for trained herdsmen.

Groen said he has a list of more than 50 Midwest dairy farms looking for people who are trained in dairy herd management.

Children who grow up on the farm sometimes don't want to go into the business and those farmers need additional hired help.

That was the case with Kelsey Carlson.

The 22-year-old is working on a 220-head dairy farm near Slayton. None of the farmer's three kids "wants anything to do with the farm," which resulted in a job opening for the 2006 Ridgewater dairy management graduate.

"I love it. I love every day, even the bad days," Carlson said. "I'm here to take care of the cows."

Carlson grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota. She had attended the University of Minnesota-Morris for two years, pursuing a biology and pre-med track.

To help pay for college she got a job milking cows at the nearby West Central Research and Outreach Center. She soon realized she liked cows better than biology and enrolled in Ridgewater's dairy program, which she said was the "best experience I've ever had."

She began working at her $30,000 a year job after graduating this spring. The job is "very labor intensive, but I love that," she said.

"Being with the animals all day long -- there's nothing better," Carlson said. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

Besides milking the cows, she treats sick cows, manages the breeding, and cares for calves, heifers and cows that have just given birth. Besides the outdoor chores, she keeps computerized records on the herd. "I do quite a bit," she said. "It makes for long days."

Her parents, she said, are "supportive and surprised" with her career choice.

Reinert, 22, has a similar story.

She has a degree from Ridgewater College in Willmar in accounting and worked for a while in an office for a seed company.

"It was all right, but it was day in and day out sitting down the calculator," Reinert said.

Recalling the fun she had with a grade school friend who had a dairy farm near her hometown of Hutchinson, Reinert went back to Ridgewater and took classes in the dairy management program.

She's been working with Don, Shirley and Chris Schueler at Deerview Dairy near Willmar since graduating in 2005.

As part of the school's dairy program, Reinert had several internships that provided hands-on training for dairy management. But growing up in town didn't prepare Reinert for a few jobs, like driving tractor and a Bobcat skid-steer loader.

"They figured I would learn," said Reinert of her employers. She did.

There are a third fewer dairy farms in Minnesota now than there were 15 years ago, said Groen. But those farms are getting bigger and the work load is often too much for family members to handle alone, and they need to "share some of the management responsibilities with someone else."

That's why there's been such a demand for his graduates. About 18 to 22 students typically graduate from the program each year, with most returning to their own family farms to work.

The only school west of Willmar that offers a two-year dairy program like Ridgewater's is in California, Groen said. This fall three of his students will be coming from Washington to learn about dairy management.

Even though Reinert's family "thinks I'm crazy" for working on a dairy farm, she said she knows she made the right career choice and can't imagine doing a non-farm job. "They do support me and understand this is something I have to do," she said. "But they wonder where it comes from."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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