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2011 March 7 - 12:00 am

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Wis. College Sows Seeds of Student

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — Simon Regan was a teenager who had never worked a day on a farm when he offered to help milk his neighbor’s cows for a little extra cash.

Now, the 24-year-old is turning that experience into a career.

This spring, Regan is set to become the first in his family to farm for a living when he graduates from Lakeshore Technical College’s Dairy Herd Management program.

The work is hard, and the days are long, with Regan rising at 3:30 a.m. to intern at a dairy farm, but the young man has found a career he’s passionate about.

“I’ve always preferred being outside, working with my hands, doing physical labor and working with animals,” Regan said.

The best part is that he’ll have no problem landing a job after finishing school in May, despite graduating on the heels of a recession that’s hit dairy farmers especially hard.

LTC officials say that Wisconsin’s oldest industry is still proving to be an excellent place to find work, thanks to a push by farmers to modernize their dairies, which has created high demand for skilled labor.

As a result, in each of the past three years, every last student in LTC’s dairy herd program has found work after graduation.

“Their job prospects are quite good,” said Sheryl Nehls, who’s taught classes in the program for the past three decades. “Agriculture is still the No. 1 industry in the state. It’s a good, honest living.”

The one-year program is capped at 18 students, and it trains them for a range of specialized dairy positions in testing, breeding and nutrition; though most graduates will find work as herd managers at existing dairies, and some will go on to start their own farms.

More and more of those students have nontraditional backgrounds, where they have had little to no farming experience.

Otherwise, the bulk of enrollees have farming in their blood, such as 18-year-old Everett Yoap II, who learned to feed calves and drive a tractor at his family’s 500-acre farm as a little boy.

“I grew up with farming, and I absolutely love the work,” said Yoap, who after graduation hopes to become the herdsman at his family’s farm.

Students enrolled in the program begin farming from day one, spending 20 or more hours a week at a local dairy, and 30 hours in the classroom.

Nehls said the field isn’t for everyone, as the hours are long and the work is very demanding.

The median starting salary for graduates is about $33,000, though Nehls said she has former students earning as much as $80,000.

But of course, students entering the field aren’t in it for the money.

“It’s one of those things, where you’ve tried it, liked it and are passionate about it,” Nehls said. “It’s not about the money. It’s an intrinsic thing.”

That’s what happened to Regan, who spent four years in the Marines after high school, worked as a mechanic for a spell and then felt the pull back to farm work.

“There’s a lot of need for someone who really knows animals and wants to be on a farm,” he said.

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