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Giving beginners a leg up

John I. and Mary Ellen Kauffman are retired from active dairying, but in many ways they're more involved than ever. By mentoring beginning producers and renting their dairy farm and facilities, the Kauffmans give young families the leg up needed to eventually go it alone. So far, six families have participated in the apprentice-partnerships the Kauffmans offer.

It all began when their youngest son, John W., took over the dairy farm near Exeland, Wisconsin. The elder Kauffmans moved to a small place nearby and pretty much retired.

After four years, their son changed his mind about dairying. The Kauffmans bought the cows back and wondered what to do next with the farm. Word of mouth brought a young farm family to rent the house and work at the dairy. They built some equity then left to buy their own farm. Then another young family came. They left, and others came.

Today, the Kauffmans' farm buzzes with the activity Daryl and Glenda High bring to it. In their late 20s and the parents of three preschoolers, the Highs arrived in the fall of 2005.

Previously, Daryl had been employed at a larger dairy where he was able to build up a small herd of his own; he brought those 38 cows to the Kauffmans' farm. Besides the home and dairy barns, the Highs rent pasture from the Kauffmans.

"Our aim is to one day buy our own farm," says Daryl. "We don't want to get big and have to hire help. We just want to stay the size of a family operation." But their future still hangs in the balance. Continuing cow payments, flat milk prices, and rising costs for everything from seed to fertilizer to fuel loom as challenges.

"It's tough to keep the bottom line together," says Daryl.

John I. and Mary Ellen Kauffman are retired from active dairying, but in many ways they're more involved than ever. By mentoring beginning producers and renting their dairy farm and facilities, the Kauffmans give young families the leg up needed to eventually go it alone. So far, six families have participated in the apprentice-partnerships the Kauffmans offer.

They might draw hope from Robin and Deb Cunningham, previous apprentice-partners of the Kauffmans. The Cunninghams now rent a farm near Chetek, Wisconsin. They own 42 cows free and clear and sell organic milk for more than 20¢ a pound. Because their dairy is seasonal and primarily grass-based, production costs are lower than average.

After working with six beginning farm families, John and Mary Ellen Kauffman have learned that mentoring takes patience and insight. They share these tips:

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