Alfredo Resendiz, the first member of his family born in the U.S. and the first to go to college, gained exposure and developed passion for agriculture through a youth program offered by the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The need to attract young people to the dairy field and to develop future industry leaders is frequently identified as a top priority by farm owners. June is National Dairy Month, and Cornell PRO-DAIRY’s flagship initiative, the Junior Dairy Leader program, for 20 years has built enthusiasm for the industry through personal and professional leadership development.

The skills developed in Junior Dairy Leader help young people improve communication skills, network with industry professionals, enhance teamwork and problem-solving skills, and gain exposure to internship opportunities.

Since 1999, a total of 468 young people have participated in Junior Dairy Leader. In surveys of program graduates, 96% reported that the program influenced their decision to pursue dairy or agricultural careers, 77% said they learned technical skills applicable to production management, and 98% said their dairy knowledge increased. Of those who said they were undecided on a career path, 58% chose dairy or another agricultural career path.

“These types of programs do have impact, especially within schools that have no agriculture at all, and for youth like me who do not come from a farm,” said Resendiz, who majored in animal science and minored in business at Cornell, and is interested in ag commodity markets and risk management.

“It motivated me to pursue agriculture as a career,” Resendiz said. “Junior Dairy Leader creates youth who are passionate about the industry and the program.”

Each year, 27 to 29 students, ages 16-19, participate in eight hands-on, interactive workshops over the course of a year. Students attend the National 4-H Dairy Conference and World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, and tour farms of various sizes and types. Each program year begins in September and culminates in a graduation ceremony in August at Empire Farm Days, where students give presentations on their experiences and lessons learned. Applicants are mostly from New York state but also come from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont, where no similar programs exist.

“My Junior Dairy Leader kids blossom over the year,” said Debbie Grusenmeyer, Cornell PRO-DAIRY youth development specialist and program leader. “Junior Dairy Leader youth strengthen their bond to dairy and agriculture through the things they do, see and learn.”

Resendiz’s parents immigrated from Mexico in the 1980s and received citizenship through naturalization. His father, a pastor in Clifton Springs, New York, taught himself English and worked his way up to herd manager at Will-O-Crest Farm in Clifton Springs, owned by Bill Young.

“I will always be grateful for the Junior Dairy Leader experience. I was able to tour so many dairies, traveled out of state to World Dairy Expo and saw many things that I had never seen before, including milking robots,” Resendiz said. “When it came time to apply to Cornell, I knew the campus already. And, I had met some of the students and professors through Junior Dairy Leader, which helped with the college transition.”

Resendiz started showing cows with Will-O-Crest owners at age 9 and at age 14 started working for a neighboring farm, Willow Bend Farm. Initially he mowed lawns, then helped with crop and calf work, and assisted herdsman Tucker Coryn. The Willow Bend farm family, a strong Junior Dairy Leader supporter, includes three generations of Cornell graduates — George Mueller, John Mueller and Thomas Mueller, who is also a Junior Dairy Leader alumnus.

“Junior Dairy Leader is a huge exposure tool,” John Mueller said. “It’s a hook to get youth excited about the industry and opens their eyes to the possibilities, so you’re getting the best and brightest staying in the industry.

“Labor is desperately short,” he said. “Junior Dairy Leader recruits and retains young kids in agriculture. We need them, to hire them, and for them to become the next generation of leaders in the industry.”

After his time with Junior Dairy Leader, Resendiz was inspired to apply to Cornell and received a $1,500 scholarship from Willow Bend, given to all employees who work 300 hours a year for the farm and maintain a B average in any field of study.

Resendiz continued to work for Willow Bend Farm while at Cornell; he also worked with the Farmworker Program at Cornell, which is dedicated to improving the living and working conditions of farmworkers and their families.

“Because Alfredo was in Junior Dairy Leader, it set him up to apply to Cornell,” Mueller said. “He is very bright and he’s a super employee. He’s well-liked and has an interesting perspective as a first-generation American and first-generation college student in his family. Junior Dairy Leader was a good step, good exposure.”