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Best of NAMA 2024

By Doris Mold who operates a small dairy farm in Wisconsin is President of American Agri-Women.

If you want a career in agriculture, here are 10 things you need to know.

1. Farming is both a lifestyle and a job. My husband and I live where we work, on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin. We start chores at 3:30 a.m. Sometimes we have to go out in the middle of the night and check on something; if a cow is pregnant, I have to be on maternity watch and prepared to help a cow give birth. The schedule varies depending on what kind of farm it is, but it's never going to be a "punch in, punch out" kind of job. At the end of the day, you're responsible for everything, so you should be prepared to make that your life.

2. On smaller farms, there are zero days off. My husband and I operate our farm by ourselves, with very minimal outside help. Since we're raising livestock, one of us has to be there at all times to care for the animals. We moved to the farm 12 years ago, and we haven't been on vacation together since then! If an animal needs help, if a crop needs to be harvested, you need to do it then. It's not like, "This will still be on my desk Monday morning." You don't get to skip work on Labor Day or Christmas or Fourth of July.

3. Some years, you might make $0. I have friends who are crop farmers, and if they have a major drought, they might not have any income that year. Other years, they do quite well. If you're growing crops like corn or soybeans, you probably won't make as much as a dairy farmer - but there's also more risk involved in dairy farming than growing corn, because it's more likely for something to go wrong with livestock than crops. Most farmers have farm insurance to safeguard against a year where you might not produce as much, and some also take on side jobs outside of the farm to diversify their income, but you should be prepared to not have a consistent paycheck.

4. There's still discrimination against women farmers. When I was in college, I was the only woman in many of my agricultural classes. When I started my own farm, I was pretty shocked by how many people dismissed me as a farmer. Sometimes people would come to sell us feed for the livestock, and they'd acknowledge that my husband was a farmer but not me. It was really hard to have people blatantly ignore me like that. Data from the Census of Agriculture suggests that now at least 30 percent of farmers in the United States are women, and there's certainly been a tremendous growth of women in agricultural careers, but be prepared for some people to view you as simply a "farmer's wife."

5. You need to be good at physical labor, critical thinking, and running a business. Sometimes I'm doing desk work, like analyzing our finances or doing accounting for the farm. Other times I'm doing physical work, like feeding animals, moving animals, or helping a cow give birth. Sometimes I'm a veterinarian, making sure my animals are as healthy as possible; in other cases, I'm looking at my pastures more like a scientist.

6. It's hard not to get attached to the livestock. We milk about 60 cows and have another 70 younger animals who aren't ready to milk yet. All of them have names. Many of them have been around for generations, so we know their sisters, their mothers, their grandmothers. We try to do our absolute best job of caring for them. But most of the time, when they've reached the end of their productive life, they'll be sold for meat - typically dairy cattle are used for ground beef. I'm not going to say that it's easy, but it's something we have to accept. I do sometimes think of them as pets, but I try to honor them by utilizing them and making use of them as much as possible.

7. Your livelihood is completely at the whim of Mother Nature. If you're growing crops, something like drought or flooding can wipe out your entire harvest. Severe cold can cause your water pipes or milking system to freeze up - and yes, we do have to go out and milk the cows, even if it's 40 below zero. Two years ago, we had six pregnant cows struck by lighting. They all died. You have to be prepared to handle that! It's so important to have contingency plans in place: purchasing insurance where you can, adjusting your spending, or finding an alternative way to bring in income.

8. There are peaceful, relaxing parts of the job. Depending on what kind of farm you have, you might have seasonal downtime. Grain farms, for example, have intensely busy periods where you have to do tillage and planting, and then you get a little seasonal break while the crop is growing until it's time to harvest. Ours is more of a consistent stream of work throughout the year, but the pastoral life can be quite nice. We have some Adirondack chairs in our backyard where we can see a good portion of our pastures. On nice evenings, we sit and talk and often have our evening meal out there while we watch the cows graze, the geese flock, and the other activities of the natural world. I also take long walks to check animals, fences, and pasture conditions while enjoying the flowers, trees, birds, and the quiet.

9. You'll start to think about food differently. When you produce your own food, you become more acutely aware of where your food is coming from. In the United States, we have one of safest food supplies in the world, and I'm always confident of what I buy from other farmers. The farmers I work with and know are all very concerned about raising a quality product. When you know how much blood, sweat, and tears go into everything that you eat, you appreciate it more.

10. If farming isn't for you, there are a ton of other careers in the agricultural field. Before I started my own farm, I worked at an agricultural corporation, I did consulting work, and I was involved in academia. Agriculture is not just about farming: Whether it's designing the new cereal box, the cereal to go in the box, or marketing where that cereal is sold, there are thousands of jobs. It's an exciting field.

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