Dairy farming…the original work from home! Many dairy farm families live on their farm property. It makes sense for many reasons, including the fact that dairy farmers are on call 24/7. Their commute is mere steps to the milking parlor. When most of society pictures what is referred to as “working from home,” they picture someone in front of a computer. Technological advances mean that many dairy farmers now find themselves in the barn and operating from a laptop, too.
Headlines would make one think that fully working from home (meaning only remotely or via computer) is possible, or should be possible, for most jobs. Ironically, many headlines also lament the supply chain issues we are facing amidst the pandemic. The former is exacerbating the latter.
Even with the use of robotic technology, agriculture requires people onsite to troubleshoot and perform the various tasks that cannot be automated. Likewise, manufacturing requires operators, maintenance staff, quality technicians, and many other people to be physically present to produce and package goods. Trucks require drivers and grocery stores need people to stock their shelves. These “dirty jobs” (as coined by Mike Rowe) are what keep our nation fed.
Dirty jobs don’t have the glamour of working from home in a cashmere sweater set or the humor of participating in a Zoom call wearing a shirt and tie paired with shorts. Dirty jobs often require muck boots or anti-slip soles. Dirty jobs have an old hat worn for sun protection or a hair net for food quality. Work jeans may have a hole from getting snagged in the barbed wire fence or bleached spots from an accidental splash of sanitizer. Even those in agriculture that wear suits have often spent considerable time on the production floor or in the milking parlor. The best leaders in our industry have put in the manual labor, too.
If you ask my dad, he’ll tell you that the hardest part of dairy farming is finding good help. Unfortunately, dirty jobs like ours seem to be increasingly viewed as something for the uneducated or unambitious. Showing up (in person) just isn’t cool. I am secure in where I come from and what I do for a living, so personally those misconceptions don’t matter to me. But what does affect us all is that these positions are hard to fill. They’re hard work, often manual labor, and require dedication and long hours.
How do we attract employees to the dairy industry? How do we fill these dirty jobs? Compensation may attract them, but what will make them stay? How do we know who will show up, even when media tells them they shouldn’t have to? I know that we are all asking ourselves and each other these questions. The best answer is to tell others firsthand what we love about our jobs.
We know that the most influential way to combat misinformation about farming is to show and tell about our practices ourselves. The same goes for the jobs in our industry that we all fill on and off the farm. We have a sense of pride in what we do, and thus we’ve made lifelong commitments to dairy. Sharing this passion, the opportunities its provided, and the impact it’s had on our lives is the strongest recruitment strategy. Dirty jobs may not be trendy or popular, but their impact on society is powerful. We need to speak up and to amplify each other’s voices in our industry, as very few outside of it know what we do or what careers are available in dairy. Showing up is crucial, and yes, we often get dirty. It’s still worthwhile to join our team — let’s explain why.
Erin Massey is the product development manager at Prairie Farms, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Edwardsville, Illinois. She is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the development process, from concept to commercialization. Erin grew up on a Florida dairy farm and has a deep-rooted passion to invigorate the dairy industry. Erin earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Florida. Her personal mantra is "Be Bold."