Industry seeks new generation of advisers for complex farms

This series looks at how farmers, agriculture consultants and service providers are professionalizing agriculture by integrating the many skills required by today’s complex and challenging industry. You can follow the entire series here.

Farmers and rural communities are bewildered by the digital, economic, technological and demographic revolutions that have swept the world in the last 30 years.

There are often no farm-focused professionals in nearby towns — and often no nearby towns at all — which has left many feeling bereft of helpful local advice.

That same turmoil has hit the farmer-advising business.

Advisers have been racing to keep up with the changes and drastically increasing demands from farmers for expert advice.

Their challenge is not to just increase their own abilities but also bring in the next generation of farm advisers.

“People aren’t moving out of the cities to the small towns,” said Liz Robertson, executive director of the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors.

“For sure there’s going to be a shortage (of farm advisers in the future.) It’s going to be hard for farmers to access the right type of farming professionals for their business.”

Fortunately, the same digital revolution that has helped speed the depopulation of rural areas has also brought the world to every farm and town. Advisers are using that to connect themselves to their farmer-clients and create networks of specialized advisers for today’s bigger, more complex farms.

Every element of farm management, from production to marketing to human resources to tax and succession planning, has become more complicated.

As a result, the need for advisers has been growing, even as farm numbers shrink.

Physical distance has become more daunting, but direct connection has never been easier, so “interdisciplinary teams” are sometimes easier to create now than in the past, Robertson said.

However, that’s where the depopulation problem rears its head again.

There was a time when every town on the Prairies had professionals of many varieties that either specialized in farm clients or had grown up on farms.

However, most of today’s professionals have grown up in cities, are based there now and are focused on general business needs.

While “farming is a business like any other one,” acknowledged Robertson, “it is (also) very different.”

Even professionals such as accountants in towns in the middle of farm country sometimes have little understanding of farming, so they can’t always help farmers with today’s more complex demands.

“How many tax returns (have I) had to re-do because people don’t understand about the inventory in the bin,” one farm adviser told Robertson. “They don’t get that. Or they don’t understand that there’s … rollovers for the farm. They don’t know that.”

So advisers are scrambling to build multi-faceted teams for today’s multi-faceted farms with fewer farm-focused professionals available and more demand than ever before.

Robertson said advisers are working on that, but they’re also worried about another looming challenge that most farmers will understand.

“We have our own succession challenges,” said Robertson.

“We need to start mentoring young people.”

It is challenging to recruit young people to the business when most agricultural graduates from university and college enjoy job offers from businesses in a range of fields. Competition for new talent is fierce.

“We need to say, ‘you don’t have a to be a seed rep to be in agriculture. You don’t need to go back to the farm to be in agriculture,’ ” said Robertson. “You can serve it in a different way, in a different capacity.”

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