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Mentoring youth for successful careers in the dairy industry

  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
  • Cornell Dairy
  • Animal Science

Enthusiasm was palpable at Junior DAIRY LEADER graduation, held in August on the Cornell campus at Morrison Hall. The day is a culmination of an intense year of hands-on learning, exposure to industry issues, networking, farm tours and travel, all designed to push comfort zones and promote leadership growth. Entry into the program is competitive, with applications being a precursor to college applications that are the next step for many graduates.

“This is an amazing program that helps to really cultivate students, especially when they're leaving high school and finding what they want to do in the workforce,” said 2023 graduate Kirsten Widrick. “The most impactful part for me was learning there's many different people in it who are young, and they're all interested in the dairy industry, in different parts of New York. You connect with other people who you'll have lifelong friendships with.”

Led by PRO-DAIRY Senior Extension Associate Debbie Grusenmeyer, Junior DAIRY LEADER (JDL) has inspired over 500 youth, ages 16 to 19, for 24 years. The innovative program is designed to build critical enthusiasm for the industry and to develop the next generation of dairy leaders.

“Junior DAIRY LEADER graduation is a special place, people, and purpose. You have gone through a life changing experience and I commend you.” - John Clark, parent of a previous JDL graduate and past president of Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance, a sponsor of JDL

Students participate in on-farm production analysis, develop resumes for internship opportunities, enhance teamwork, communication and problem-solving skills, prepare public presentations, and participate in farm tours and regional seminars.

“If you want to stay in ag, there's a million different fields you can go into, and a bunch of opportunities that not only need you but also want you,” said Isaac Folts. “I think if you're nervous, just apply and give it a shot. You will have fun and you'll see a lot of new things, interact with amazing people, and have opportunities down the road.”

    The program kicks off in fall with a trip to tour dairies in Wisconsin and attend the National 4-H dairy conference. Many of the participants meet for the first time in the airport as they prepare to leave for the trip.

    “Debbie's been wonderful. She's done this for so long, she knows how to treat the students with a caring attitude, while also giving them the independence to become who they are and explore new things,” said Kirsten’s mom Alison Widrick, Chaumont, NY. “When they went to Wisconsin, Debbie encouraged them to find a buddy and have fun. It was a great growing experience for them.”

    In eight more programs over the year participants learn about and develop technical production management skills, are exposed to career opportunities, and build tools to make positive contributions to the industry. All with the goal of developing a growth mindset and positive impact on the dairy industry.

    “The program allows so many opportunities that they wouldn't have if they were just on the farm. It exposes them to other farms,” said Isaac’s mom Ginny Folts, North Collins, NY. “We have a smaller farm and milk about 120 cows. Isaac has come back with so many different things that he said, you know, I have an advantage through Junior DAIRY LEADER. I saw this, so should we try this? Just exposing them, whether you stay on the farm or you learn about other careers in the industry, it's just a really great opportunity for them.” Ginny said she has seen growth and leadership in Isaac throughout JDL. “If you're considering it, do it. It is a little bit of a juggle. Figuring out tour schedules and getting here can be challenging, but it's really worth it.”

    The need to attract high-caliber youth to the dairy field is frequently identified as a top priority by farm owners and JDL engages youth with careers in the dairy industry and inspires their educational choices. Of the 554 Junior DAIRY LEADER graduates over the past 24 years, 97 percent continue their education beyond high school. Notable is that 84 percent of these youth choose agriculture, while prior to participation 53 percent indicated that they had not planned to pursue agricultural careers or had been undecided.

    “I think Junior DAIRY LEADER is a great way for youth to meet others who share their interests,” said Kirsten’s mom Alison Widrick. “It helped her grow and become more self-assured and positive by meeting people her age and realizing that she is not alone in her love for dairy cows and farming. She saw there are many people who support the dairy industry. JDL also allowed her to see many different aspects of agriculture which opened up new opportunities for her future. Growing up on a dairy farm we don't always see other parts of the industry and this gave her a glimpse into what else was out there, which was extremely valuable as she considers college and career choices.”

    Junior DAIRY LEADER impact

    • Over 500 participants since 1999
    • 96 percent say JDL influenced their decision to pursue dairy or agricultural careers
    • 77 percent learned technical skills applicable to production management
    • 98 percent increased their dairy knowledge
    • 97 percent improved communication skills
    • 87 percent improved teamwork
    • 92 percent chose a career path
    • 69 percent enhanced problem-solving skills
    • 85 percent valued networking within the industry
    • 58 percent of undecided participants chose dairy or another agricultural career path

    2023 Graduates

    • Abbie Ainslie
    • Amelia Brewer
    • Luke Enyart
    • Allison Gabel
    • Matthew Haier
    • Allison Michel
    • Peter Mueller
    • Holly Niefergold
    • Reagan Reese
    • Sadie Thume
    • Kristen Widrick
    • Erma Wolcott
    • Stephanie Youngers

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