ANTIGO — Just as a church, a farm is much more than brick and mortar.
That’s the message Deacon Andy Bures, a farmer, brings to his role in the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program, the first formal educational program of its type in the nation.
“Our goal is to get people started in dairying at a small level, 100 cows or less,” said Deacon Bures, who operates a three-generation dairy farm northwest of Antigo. “All of the people involved want a farm where they can create a way of life, not just a business.”
Although he grew up dairying, Deacon Bures did not immediately gravitate to the farm. He served four years in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany, and retired from the Army Reserves. During that time, he obtained his undergraduate degree at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minn., and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With a job as a high school social worker — and his wife, Stephanie, holding a teaching degree — he seemed well on the path toward a life away from agriculture.
But life has a way of getting in the way of plans.
“My grandfather bought the farm in the 1940s and my father took it over,” Deacon Bures said. “But when it came time for him to retire, no one else in my family wanted to work it.”
That was in 1999. So the Bureses raised their three children on the farm, which they gradually changed into an organic grazing operation.
Along the way, he also became a deacon, ordained in 2013 and now serving St. John the Evangelist and SS. Mary and Hyacinth parishes in Antigo as well as St. Wenceslaus in Neva.
“The life you live should always reflect God’s presence on earth, and we are expected to spread that message in the world,” he said. “I’m looking at how God operates in the world at all times, and my role as a deacon is to help other people see that in their lives as well.”
Big business has reached into the dairy industry, changing the focus from family-owned to large-scale operations, some with several thousand cows. That’s fine, Deacon Bures said, explaining how this reflects the nation’s desire for inexpensively-produced and priced products.
However, an unintended casualty is the small family farm as a way of life. Farming has become a business with owners, managers and workers — each being different people.
“It’s becoming a business as opposed to a lifestyle,” the deacon said. “There are lots of young people who want to run a small dairy operation, and yet they don’t have a way of doing it.”
In 2015, Deacon Bures joined the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, a program created by Joe Tomandl III, a central Wisconsin dairy farmer and former agriculture teacher, to meet the needs of a changing agricultural landscape.
It’s simple economics. Dairy farming is a vital part of the rural economy, but the U.S. is losing 5 to 10 percent of its dairy farms every year. The average dairy farmer is 59 years old and many do not have any identified successor.
Tomandl’s program is a formal apprenticeship, with work-based training and related instruction for the federally recognized occupation of “dairy grazier,” the farmer who uses a method of rotational grazing that allow the cows to forage naturally, while also letting fields rest and regrow. It includes 4,000 hours of training over a period of two years, including 3,712 hours working and learning under an approved master dairy grazier.
“The goal is to get your cows to produce milk off your own land in the most efficient way possible,” Deacon Bures said.
Since its inception in 2010, the program has spread to nine states, with 40 active master-apprentice pairs, 15 journey dairy graziers and more than 200 apprentice candidates.
Deacon Bures admitted that his goals were not totally altruistic when he joined the program. With his children grown and pursuing careers outside of agriculture, “I needed help to farm,” he said. “In the meantime, I could get another family comfortable enough to buy and operate a farm.”
He also had the perfect setup, with a second home on his farm ready for an apprentice, and a partner in his wife.
Deacon Bures’ first apprentice completed the program this spring and his second, Matt Keesling, arrived in mid-June, with his wife, Tish, and their daughter, Sarah. Keesling comes to farming after a career in the military, retiring as a U.S. Army major after 24 years.
“I grew up in a rural community and I’ve always had a desire to farm,” Keesling said. “This is the only way to really transition careers that are on the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ve never had a day where I didn’t want to get up and start working. “I haven’t had a bad day yet.”
The apprenticeship is a formal, paid position, with instruction in rotational grazing, milking and related functions, calf and cow care, and soil and plant management. But there is more, things that cannot be covered through a job book or list of objectives.
“You develop an appreciation for nature, the earth, and the important connection people have to life,” Deacon Bures said. “You learn you cannot fight Mother Nature. If you try to control everything, it won’t work.
“I’ve actually used it in my homilies,” he added. “You need to let life operate as it is, control what you can, accept what is given and learn from it.”
Deacon Bures said his days on the farm are not so different from his years as a social worker. People and animals want similar things in life, and will do what they have to in order to feel comfortable and safe.
All of his experiences dovetail into his latest role.
“I want to do what God wants me to do to bring about his kingdom,” he said. “I have been given a lot of gifts and now my job is to use them. Pay attention to how the Spirit moves you and walk through that door.”