Master grazier Gay Rodgers (left) and apprentice Jess Matthews (right) at Hameau Farm.

We asked Master Grazier Gay Rodgers and Apprentice Jess Matthews from Hameau Farm in Belleville, PA about their experience participating in Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship. Learn more about this farmer training program and how you can get involved here

Master grazier: Gay Rodgers, Hameau Farm

Why did you choose to become a master grazier?

I like sharing what I do, and if there are young people interested in this work, I want to share it with them. At first, I wasn’t sure I was a “master,” but once I realized that this was going to be a learning situation for everyone involved, I relaxed with it. I feel like we graziers need to talk about what we do. It’s almost like our way of dairy farming has been a secret for some time, but it’s important to share it, especially now.

How has the program supported your personal goals and/or your farm?

My philosophy has always been to share your passion and what you do so that others can catch that spirit and learn from it. From the summer camp we’ve run on this farm for many years, now to Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, Hameau has always been a place where mentorship is an important practice.

What have you found challenging?

The biggest challenge has probably been finding the time to teach and explain as much as I would like. The learning curve for a beginner is long. That isn’t necessarily a negative—it’s to be expected, and working with beginners also comes with some positives—but finding adequate time is always a challenge.

What have you especially enjoyed?

I’ve enjoyed the interactions with Jess, especially when she gets an idea and runs with it. She has a beginner’s mind, and often sees possibilities in things I’ve overlooked. For instance, I’ve had bags of wool from our sheep sitting around for ages. Jess asked if she could play with some of them, and wound up making all sorts of crafts, from felted animals to dryer balls, that she’s actually been able to sell. There’s a creativity there that has been a lot of fun to learn from and interact with.

What has surprised you about the experience?

That there are young people out there that are interested in learning this way of farming, and farming, generally. It’s easy to get bogged down and depressed, thinking that no one wants to continue to do this, but there are people out there who are interested. The way they want to farm, though, might look different than the last generation. I think a lot of the next generation is especially interested in farming closer to nature, with cows out on grass.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a master grazier?

Just do it, but be prepared to learn something yourself. The education here isn’t a one way street, and it’s important to have an open mind.

Apprentice: Jess Matthews, Hameau Farm

Why did you choose to become an apprentice?

I have always been interested in farming and food sovereignty, and came across this opportunity on the PASA website. I love animals and working outside, so this seemed like it would be something I would really love. Gay was fantastic in letting me have an opportunity to try this out.

How is the program supporting your personal goals?

I get to do what I absolutely love, and the program gives me a much needed structure, pay, and timeline.

What have you found challenging?

I knew there would be physical challenges; I didn’t realize there would be emotional ones. I absolutely love these cows and the other animals on the farm. When they are sick or hurt, I am sad and scared for them. I know so much about them—it’s hard to detach emotionally.

What have you especially enjoyed?

I don’t know that I can narrow it down. Getting to know the cows; [getting to know] Gay; seeing the campers learn and grow; working with wool and milk to make cheese and butter; watching the seasons change; the amazing scenery; that one peaceful moment once all the cows are in the barn and we’re about to start milking; watching calves grow; assisting with births; collecting eggs; petting calves; even scraping the barn. The whole experience is just so satisfying.

What has surprised you about the experience?

I am stronger than I thought I was! I will struggle with something (be it hiking up a huge hill, hauling heavy buckets of water, chasing small heifers that got out), and day by day I will get better at it! I am surprised by just how much I love the cows, sheep, and chickens. My friends who luckily love me dearly now have to hear stories about Hava, Hope, barn kittens, and bottle feeding calves. They know the cows names too and ask how they’re doing.

How do you plan to utilize your experience after you complete the program?

I’m just not sure yet. I am a homesteader at heart and like the idea of having animals on a homestead, but I don’t know. I love Hameau Farm and Gay and the cows. I don’t see myself anywhere else.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an apprentice?

Try it! It has been a fulfilling experience for me in every way. Buy good footwear. Wear layers.

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If you’re interested in joining the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program by applying to become either a master grazier or apprentice, you can learn more here.

Note: We first shared this Q&A in the summer 2018 edition of PCO’s quarterly newsletter Organic Matters.

Author: Melissa Cipollone