When Alex Peterson envisioned his dream job, he didn’t picture working on his family’s dairy farm in Trenton, Missouri. As a teenager, he wasn’t keen on the never-ending chores and all-encompassing lifestyle. Today, he can tell you how many steps it takes to get from his house to the milking barn — 275.
“On the coldest winter morning, I can be zero percent awake and by the time I get to the barn I’m fully awake. That’s saved on coffee,” he said with an easy laugh.
Why the change? Alex followed his heart and it led him where he never imagined – back to the family farm.
“I knew the strains and demands of farming and I was looking to get out and blaze my own path,” he said. “But every job I looked into wasn’t as rewarding and didn’t bring me as much joy as working on the farm.”
After earning his degree in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri and helping on the farm temporarily, he landed an internship in Washington, D.C. The work was energizing and exciting. But looking out the window on a glorious fall day, he could feel part of himself withering. He longed to be outside, working with his hands and seeing the rewards of his labor. This calling, which he described as a “spiritual nudge,” brought him home, where he farms with his parents, Brian and Barb, and brother Opie at Peterson Dairy, Inc.
Alex leads the dairy’s herd-health, breeding and calf-rearing programs, which means he helps care for sick animals, oversees vaccination protocols, makes sure pregnancies and deliveries go smoothly and cares for newborn calves. He also helps with the farm’s finances and overall management of the operation, both of which leverage his experience in college and politics.
“As we sit down after morning chores, we take our first little break of the day and talk through what needs to be done and who’s going to do what,” he said. “That can turn into a very complex set of diplomatic maneuvers.”
Alex admits that conducting those maneuvers with family can be tricky.
“The benefit of working with family is, everybody understands each other very well because we have that long history. The downside is, everybody thinks they understand each other very well,” he said, again laughing as he spoke.
It’s clear from his good-natured laugh that the Peterson family enjoys the benefits of working together more often than not.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “Dairy farming is unique in that the cows absolutely have to be milked every day, twice a day in our case. That common bond necessitates working together.”
Although there is no typical day, there are several key touchpoints. Chores and cookie break (when the family comes together to plan the day ahead) take place in the morning. From there, they go their separate ways to do what needs to be done. Each person has a focus at the dairy, but they all chip in wherever they are needed.
Often the plan goes by the wayside as more immediate needs crop up. That unpredictability is one of the only predictable things about the job. Evening chores round out the day before it all starts up again. It’s hard work and long hours, but Alex doesn’t seem to mind.
“I don’t think I could do a 40-hour-a-week job,” he said. “I’d have to do two of them.”
In a way, he does. In addition to his work on the dairy, Alex gives back to the community. He has served as a high school coach, sports referee, youth pastor, school board representative and in various leadership roles for agricultural advocacy groups.
“I’m not going to claim I did them all well,” he said, again laughing with humor and humility. “You have to be a jack-of-all-trades in a small town.”
You also have to have a lot of energy. Alex always seems to be moving. (Even while talking with us, he was multi-tasking and raking hay.) Yet his various experiences only seem to energize him more as they build on one another.
“We can draw wisdom from so many different sources, and I think it’s important that we do. They bring new insight, technology and critical thinking,” he said.
Alex added that the farming community as a whole embraces innovation.
“Every single farmer is trying to do the absolute best they can to care for their animals, their land and their community. If you don’t manage any one of those things well, that would be a very hard obstacle to overcome,” he said. “Every day in America there’s a farmer trying something new for the sake of advancement.”
At Peterson Dairy, those advancements include environmentally friendly practices like soil erosion control and water management.
“Cows are one of the best things for soil,” he said. “They take pure grasses, consume them and redeposit those nutrients into the soil to keep it healthy. That helps the soil retain more water so you don’t have as much runoff or flooding, and keeps it from drying out — alleviating drought conditions.”
By building ponds and dry hole basins, the dairy doesn’t have to rely on water from the public system as much.
“These projects will be an improvement for decades and decades and decades,” he said.
Seeing those improvements firsthand is one of the most rewarding aspects of his work. From longer-term projects like building water structures to shorter-term projects like raking hay, Alex values seeing the positive effect his efforts have on the farm and beyond.
“It’s not lost on me that in some small way I’m doing something good and that’s part of what gives me fulfillment,” he said. “This field had grass standing in it a few days ago and now has beautiful round bales. To visually see the progress and work with my hands — I’m proud of what I’m doing, knowing that the product I’m providing to the world is one of the most wholesome products out there.”
And the lifestyle that once had him exploring other options is ultimately what brought him back.
“I do what I do because I love it,” he said. “I love being outdoors. I love taking care of the land.
I love the animals that I work with and seeing them do well because of what I’ve done to keep them healthy and at their best.”
*Photos featured in this article were taken prior to March 2020 before mandatory mask/social distancing mandates were implemented.