Millennial Manager: A Farm Girl’s Journey to Take the Reins

“I learned a lot of my basic skill set over there and my parents watched that, so when I came home, they had some level of confidence in my ability to work with cows,” she says.  ( Sean Cloud )

On a cool crisp morning Emilie Mulligan walks through the barn greeting employees with a warm smile. After returning to her family’s centennial dairy farm, the biggest challenge she has faced is learning how to manage people. The fourth-generation farmer’s bright smile and cheery attitude are two things she says the team seems to appreciate. 

Mulligan, who milks 1,300 cows with her dad, Jeff, has been in the management role for almost three years. Her  grandparents started with a 50-cow tiestall barn in 1920 and her dad grew the operation from there. Since she became manager, they’ve added another 200 cows. 

“My dad is still here every day overseeing, but he has given me the reins to make decisions,” she says. “I manage our team of 10 milkers, a few calf managers, a herdsman and a feeder.”

Mulligan describes her management style as hands on. 

“I’m in the barn every day with the guys,” she says.

 That’s been an adjustment for employees because her dad was a hands-off manager. 

“I’m still working on that skill because I like things done my way and I’m pretty particular, but he’s done really well being a hands-off manager so that’s definitely something I’m aspiring to work toward at some point,” she says. 

Mulligan recognizes the importance of building confidence in her employees and their ability to do their job well. 

Another challenge Mulligan faces with her team comes with the territory of being the owner’s daughter. 

“I think it’s been an interesting transition for my employees simply being a young female and also knowing who I am,” she says. 

One of their employees has been with them 30 years and remembers her pushing around a doll in a stroller, she adds. 

In many cases, one of the biggest challenges younger managers face is working with long-term non-family employees — not dad, grandpa or mom, says Sarah Beth Aubrey, the CEO coach. 

“Even when it’s not on purpose, a lack of clear reporting structure creates a host of avoidable problems for employees and young managers,” Aubrey warns. “[For the senior generation], it’s important you say something if you see your older employees dissing on your young manager; you might need to step in and discourage that behavior.”

Convincing her team she was serious about managing and growing the dairy hasn’t been Mulligan’s only challenge. She also had to convince her parents. After graduating from Cornell University with an animal science degree, she went
to work for local dairy producer Jonathan Lamb. She says the time spent working elsewhere was instrumental in building her confidence in her abilities but also helping her parents see how capable she is.

“I learned a lot of my basic skill set over there and my parents watched that, so when I came home, they had some level of confidence in my ability to work with cows,” she says. 

A Warm Welcome

Mulligan is grateful for the opportunity to manage her family’s farm. Not all of her classmates received the same warm welcome from their parents when returning home. 

“I have friends who have returned to their family farms and haven't been given any decision-making power and have really had to work hard to even get minimal management opportunities. I have been lucky enough to not have that be the case,” she says.

Mulligan credits her parents for being good listeners and for letting her make mistakes. For example, she’s crowding the barn and changing the milking schedule. 

When it comes to HR and
employee-related work, Mulligan’s mother, Lesa, has also taken a similar hands-off approach. Mulligan has been allowed to take the lead while her mother is still active and involved with overall trainings and employee management.

The Future

While Mulligan would like to continue to expand their operation, and their milk market could handle more production, there are other challenges to growth. Land availability to expand farming is limited, restricting herd size. 

“I’d really love to see how far we can take this. I have a twin sister, and while I don’t know if she’d ever come home, I think if we had another operation, it would be fun to work with her,” Mulligan says. “She’s fluent in Spanish, so having another person to help manage multiple sites would be really cool.”

All in all, Mulligan says most people don’t see a lot of opportunity for growth in this industry, but from her perspective, the future of dairy farming is bright.