A Path to Dairy Farming, Not College

06/08/2015 12:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016
Megan Culhane Galbraith When my teenage sons, Jesse (19) and Sam (17), decided college was not for them, our family had a moment of panic. "Is it possible to be successful without a college degree?" "Were we shortchanging our kids career-wise?" "What kind of parents were we to allow them to choose not to go to college?" But the scarier truth was that they wanted to become farmers - more specifically dairy farmers. We panicked again. The life of a dairy farmer is rife with uncertainty and loads of debt. It's 365 days of grueling work, no vacations, and little security. We'd seen friends forced to sell their entire herd of dairy cows when the market imploded in 2009. We'd seen the slow decline of farming in Upstate New York. We worried we could be sending our boys into a near-dead industry, but then we realized they were part of a larger trend called Generation Do-It-Yourself. It changed our thinking. It made us, as parents, realize that our boys just might be able to do something that they loved and in doing so, help reignite the dairy industry. We live in Cambridge, NY and the boys' school was a tiny, K-12 rural school of about 800 students. They couldn't sit still in class, balked at the insane amount of homework, and couldn't wait to get home so they could muck around in the barns or be in the fields with their animals. The cows, they explained, made them feel calmer. The rhythms of feeding and caretaking seemed to balance what was happening in their overactive minds. We agreed; farming was good for them. As parents, we wanted them to pursue their passion, but we were terrified because we knew the harsh realities First Generation farmers face. Our boys don't have the benefit of inheriting a farming legacy; we didn't have a farm we could hand down, as was the case with many of the successful area farmers. They would have to start from scratch and they were just teenagers! For GenDIY, building a network and getting the support you deserve is imperative to success. The supportive farming community helped us along in our thinking. One neighbor said, "If those boys fail, it won't be due to lack of a work ethic." Another let them grow crops on a few of his acres that were not being used; another gave them two bags of corn to plant, and our across-the-road neighbor fertilized and sprayed their corn at no cost. As a family, we sat down and crunched the numbers. Were they to go to an in-state college at nearby SUNY-Cobleskill - a well-respected Ag & Tech school that was also their father's alma mater - their debt would run at least $20,000 each just for an associates degree. This traditional route seemed out of touch, especially with the growing higherEd options available for GenDIY. They had little chance of any return on that investment since they would also have to incur that much debt (or more) just to begin farming. Also, frankly, you don't need a college degree to be a farmer. What you need is a hunger for hard work, common sense, and a love for what drives you. Ask any GenDIY student that these things will be at their core. We decided to have them formulate a business plan so they could see the costs and the risks. We sought the services of Sandy Buxton, the Farm/Agricultural Business Management Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension's Washington County branch. We began a grassroots fundraising campaign for the boys in an effort to defray start-up costs. The boys began buying used farm equipment and saving money in a joint account. Thanks to their tenacity and hard work, they were presented with an opportunity to rent a dairy barn close by, and to buy a small herd of seven Jersey cows. They had been slowly buying their own cows for two years with the idea that the calves would be the beginnings of their dairy herd. They took on calves that were sickly and nursed them back to health. They bought calves that the bigger farms didn't want to spend time tending. They took a chance on those babies and now it is poised to pay off. Because of their passion, persistence, and planning, their cows will give birth to calves in September. Combined with this new herd, the boys will effectively have tripled their head of cattle from 10 cows to 30, with their five-year goal being to milk 65-70 cows. They will begin milking their herd in the fall. We will spend the summer tidying their rented barn, upgrading and cleaning the milk house, mending fence, and finding a bulk milk buyer. If it all works out, the boys should collect their first milk check for Promised Land Farms (the name they gave to their venture) in October. As a parent, I still have sleepless nights filled with worry, but doesn't every parent? My boys are quite happy with the path they've chosen and we know it is the right one for them. I am proud that the boys are committed to remaining in Cambridge, NY and being vital contributors to this farming community. The debt they incur now will be directly related to their farm and their animals, not to college. They tell us they wouldn't have it any other way. If you are interested in contributing to the Farm Fund for Jesse & Sam, please visit the Farm Fund for Jesse & Sam on We appreciate you sharing it with your social networks. This blog is part of our GenDIY project. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email with the subject "GenDIY." For more information about the project see Tell Your Story: Do-It-Yourself Pathways From School to Career as well as other blogs:

Megan Culhane Galbraith is a writer who lives with her family in a hayfield in Upstate NY. You can find her on Twitter, @megangalbraith or at