VIDEO: The new professionals: farmers learn new roles

Being successful means having marketing and agronomy expertise
and business and financial management skills

Part 1: 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.

WAWANESA, Man. — Simon Ellis hasn’t dealt with many of the down times in western Canadian farming, at least not as the operator of a farm.

However, he’s spent the last few profitable years getting ready for when things turn lean, something that might be happening now as crop prices drop.

“You need to be able to identify the risks and manage for them,” said Ellis, a 28-year-old who farms with his wife, father and mother in a verdant patch of farmland along Black Creek near Wawanesa.

To do that, he’s spent some of his few adult farming years getting educated at both university and college, attending agricultural industry conferences, joining organizations and talking — a lot — with the rest of his family.

Although he hasn’t farmed through the tough decades that scarred veteran farmers, he and a young generation of producers are trying to adapt to the increasing demands of modern farming.

These farmers need to be expert crop producers like the generations before them, but they must also be competent with financial management, business management, marketing management and personal management.

“It seems as though the dollar figures are increasing every year, and having to plan for that and manage that is a major factor,” said Ellis, whose farm is based on pedigreed seed production.

“This is a business now. It’s not what people would call ‘just a farm.’ It’s a full-on business. You’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars in crop inputs.”

The 2006-13 years of high profitability allowed young farmers to ease into the business while the future seemed bright and returns could provide a cushion against small mistakes.

They also forced young farmers to buy farmland at much higher prices than did previous generations.

Ellis has tried to set himself up for harder times by getting educated, first at the University of Manitoba, where he wryly admitted he was more interested in the “social” and “evening” aspects of school, and then at Assiniboine Community College in Brandon.

He regularly attends production conferences such as Crop-Connect, marketing conferences such as Grain World and regional events where farmers get together and talk about farming.

He’s also involved in organizations such as Keystone Agricultural Producers’ Young Farmers Forum, in which the new generation networks to discuss issues.

As well, he’s learned from farm management expert Cedric Macleod, who he met at the Young Farmers Forum, that becoming a professional farmer means realizing that no farmer is going to be an expert at everything.

As a result, farming out certain tasks to other professionals is essential.

He and his father have done that with succession planning and management consulting, hiring Backswath Management to help the family sort out how the younger family eases into the longtime family business.

However, that doesn’t eliminate the need for today’s young farmer to have a better grasp of those areas than past generations.

“I think you do need very good business skills as far as financial knowledge,” said Ellis.

“You don’t have to necessarily do it yourself, but you still have to be able to read the statements that you get from your financial adviser or accountant to make a financial plan for a year.”

Ellis is hoping the efforts of young farmers like him and hundreds of others will help make future downturns less destructive. If farms are more thoughtfully managed, perhaps fewer farmers will be bounced from the business.

Farmers who aren’t on top of farm management, commodity marketing and financial management “will probably be OK as long as they have decent years and have a crop, but if they come into challenging years, they might not make it,” said Ellis. “But a professional farmer might.”

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