Before My Wharton MBA, There Was Farming

Dairy Farming

I grew up as a suburban kid. During my middle school summer breaks my parents used to ship me off to work at their family farms. I assumed they did it just to get a break from keeping me out of trouble but looking back, I realize they also did it to teach me the lessons they both learned growing up on dairy farms. Those summers on the farm helped me in my career in ways my MBA did not. Here are the lessons I learned as a dairy farm “intern.”

1. What Hard Work Really Is. I’ve clocked 100-hour weeks in my consulting career and know how that feels. But in the middle of any crazy project, I knew I would get a break at some point. My dairy farmer family never got vacations, holidays or even weekends off. For 365 days a year they had to milk the cows morning and night, for the cows’ sake and their own. Witnessing that gave my young self a perspective on what “hard work” looked like.

 

2. How a Good Colleague Acts. Of course some events like weddings or funerals forced dairy farmers to trade in their overalls for their one Sunday suit and take a day away from work. The cows don’t take a break though, so the work still needed to be done. When one farmer missed a milking, it meant a neighbor did two milkings back to back without making a fuss. My folks simply knew colleagues are supposed to have each other’s backs.

 

 3. Calm Confidence is a Force Multiplier. A typical dairy cow weighs about 1,500 pounds, or much more than 10 times what I weighed at the time. An animal that size could crush or kick the life out of me without even meaning harm. My uncles taught me to be safe. I taught myself how to control animals that size by projecting calm confidence.

 

4. Find Safe-Fail Teaching Opportunities. The thing I most enjoyed on the farm was getting to drive pickup trucks long before I was legally old enough. Looking back, I realize my uncles were carefully selecting what, where and how I got to drive. If they let me drive alone, it was only in off-road fields where the bumps slowed me long before my immature judgement did. When I did inevitably dent a fender, it was on a beat up old truck. I felt so scared telling my uncle that I knew I never wanted to dent a car again.

 

5. Track Your Results. Cows produce an average of about eight gallons (30 liters) of milk per day and my uncles milked about 25-30 cows. If their 500-gallon bulk tanks were at least 90 percent full when the dairy truck came every other day, they knew they were profitable. If it was lower, they knew they had to fix something quickly to get things to breakeven. That taught me the value of frequent and concrete performance feedback as a way to ensure long-term goals get achieved.

 

6. Internships as Gateways. My parents were the first in their respective families to go to college. As a result of their hard work, I grew up as a privileged suburban kid who as an adolescent was starting to become more focused on what clothes my classmates had than what kind of person I wanted to be. By exposing me to a world completely foreign to my suburban existence, I got perspective on where I was, where my parents had come from, and where I could be. Those summers introduced me to idols who wore overalls, and that has centered me throughout my career as I moved through more stylish circles.

 

Like most small dairy farms, both of my family’s dairy farms shut down years ago. As an MBA-trained capitalist, I understand why. That said, I remember those lessons well and I keep the old milk bucket I used as a daily reminder. I wish every future MBA and chief operating officer had a chance to work at a small family dairy farm for at least one summer.  

 

Editor’s note: The original version of this article appeared on LinkedIn on Feb. 10, 2016.

Wharton Magazine - Background

Type to Search

See all results