Mentors around every corner

Part 4: 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.

The best advice on how to become a pro farmer might not come from another farmer but from the business owner in town, says Brent VanKoughnet of Agri Skills, a management advisory and training company in Carman, Sask.

“Look at the local business people you admire,” said VanKoughnet.

“Pick one. Buy him lunch. Ask the GM (vehicle) dealer, ‘how can you as the little guy play with the big player who holds all the cards?’ That’s a situation every farmer has to deal with too.”

VanKoughnet said the old skills of agronomy and machinery management are still essential, but non-traditional skills can be even more important. Farms are bigger and more complex than in the past, but so too are farmers’ suppliers and customers. Managing involved relationships with business connections is vital for producing margins.

“The most distinguishing characteristic of the highly successful farmer of the future is the ability to manage difficult conversations,” said VanKoughnet.

“There are going to be difficult moments. That’s the professionalism of business relationships that doesn’t come naturally. That has to be intentional, and you have to be proactive.”

Farming is no longer a business of tens of thousands of producers supplying bulk, undifferentiated grain to dozens or hundreds of buyers. Now there are relatively few farmers with big production and a handful of key buyers.

That gives buyers a lot of power, and some are now hand-picking their best farmer-suppliers into “A,” “B” and “Don’t Matter” classes. Being in the right class and on the right phone list matters to profitability.

“How can you become not just a good supplier but a preferred supplier? It may be the subtleties that separate you from everybody else,” said VanKoughnet.

Those subtleties, such as how quickly a phone call is returned, can often be better learned from non-farming businesspeople.

Farmers don’t need to feel isolated or deprived of a strong local community just because they farm in an area with few other significant farmers, VanKoughnet said. The local business community can be a treasure trove of professional skills and abilities that are now as vital on the farm as on Main Street.

Management skills can also be picked up from mainstream business news sources.

“Subscribe to Inc or Fast Company or Harvard Business Review. See what’s the discussion and the modern view of management. Learn that language a bit,” said VanKoughnet.

“Instead of just reading ag papers, see what business news is being reported.”

Many farmers are uncomfortable with focusing on non-traditional skills such as communications and human resources management, but VanKoughnet said those are no longer just ways to improve a farm but core to the survival or death of the farm.

“There are rewards for those who learn those skills and consider that to be a true responsibility of farm leadership,” said VanKoughnet.

“Whether you like it or not, those are leadership tasks that I wouldn’t sub out to somebody else.”


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