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Build a learning farm

This summer, start your lifelong educational strategy

Farmers always have their hands full, so it’s not always easy to think that signing up for a seminar, conference or training course is a wise investment or a good use of time.

The business case, however, is pretty clearly in favour of doing just that.

“If you look at it purely from an economist’s point of view, you spend time and money to learn something, but afterwards that knowledge is free,” says Joerg Zimmermann, owner of Global-Ag-Advisors Ltd. at St. Francois Xavier, Man.

“So you spent some time and money, but you don’t have any variable costs, you only have fixed costs, and you can spread them over the rest of your life.”

Lifelong learning ranks #1

Recent research backs up the importance and actual value of lifelong learning for farm owners, managers, and employees. A report, “Dollars and Sense — Measuring the Tangible Benefits of Farm Business Management Practices on Canadian Farms” identifies the top seven farm business management practices that drive farm financial success, and No. 1 on the list is commitment to continuous learning.

“We were pleasantly surprised to see lifelong learning is ranked at the top of those management practices that have the most impact on the success of the farm business,” says Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada, which partnered with the Agri-Food Management Institute to commission the survey in 2015. “The study shows that lifelong learning is one of the management practices that is definitely worthwhile, even though it’s a longer-term return on investment.”

To give an analogy, Watson says no farmer would leave their tractor in the shed and put off investing in its maintenance and just assume that it’s performing at its peak and meeting all the current needs and specifications of the operation.

“It’s comparable to skills development,” Watson says. “You need to invest in maintenance on your ability to succeed. You might not see the return right away, but 10 years down the road, you’re going to realize that it was worth it.”

“Dollars and Sense” quantifies that value and demonstrates how management practices correlate with financial performance. The report compared the top performing 25 per cent of farm operations in the survey against the bottom 25 per cent (according to their 2014 tax data) to show the actual value of implementing these practices. As an example, the top farmers had an average return on assets of 10 per cent, more than five times higher than the bottom 25 per cent of farmers, who averaged 1.6 per cent.

Top farmers also had stronger asset turnover scores (20 per cent versus 9.7 per cent for the bottom ranked farmers), and their gross margin ratios averaged 50 per cent compared to 19.6 per cent.

“This was the first study to establish a measurable link between farm business management practices and financial success of the farm,” says Watson.

Building a learning plan

Although continuous learning is clearly crucial to farm success, only 49 per cent of the 604 farms that participated in the survey are actually engaged in it. One of the reasons more farms aren’t participating could be that they simply don’t know how to identify the skills and training that they need, says Watson.

“We recommend farmers get all of the members of the farm team to conduct an assessment to see how they are doing in these different management areas,” she says. “From the assessment, they can build a plan to compensate for any weaknesses, and address the priority areas they have identified, including any opportunities for skills development and/or advisory services. It unlocks the door in terms of deciding which skills the members of the farm team should acquire, and those they can hire an adviser to do.”

There are plenty of assessment tools to help farmers identify what skills and training their operations need. Most provincial agriculture ministries have resources on their websites, and most offer grant programs under Growing Forward 2 towards the cost of various business management training options and advisory services.

Manitoba Agriculture offers a useful Gaining Ground Agribusiness Assessment Workbook, which farmers can go through to assess their farm against a number of best practices in six different management areas — business structure, production, environmental sustainability, human resources, marketing and financial management.

“This allows them to set goals for their farm business so it can continue to evolve and grow, and that includes their own self-learning,” says Wendy Durand, farm enterprise management specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.

Durand emphasizes the need for a continuous learning plan that owners or managers can review and update as the business evolves and roles change. “Everybody’s learning plan is going to look different depending on their own personal skill set, their existing network, and where they are at in their farming careers, but the commonality is the self-assessment, looking at what they know, what the gaps are, and prioritizing what are the most important learning opportunities, so they can develop a learning plan,” she says. “Then, when they are doing that annual review of their finances, or production or marketing plans, they can also review their learning plan.”

Making tasks and skill requirements clear

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) has focused on transferring a lot of the knowledge that is in farmers’ heads — still the most common repository of skills training in primary agriculture — to actual documentation that can be used to identify the tasks that make up many of the jobs in agriculture.

“The CAHRC has created National Occupational Standards for 11 commodities,” says Tracy Biernacki-Dusza, agri-skills manager for CAHRC. “When farmers train, it’s usually just handed down; it’s always in their heads, so CAHRC completed a three-year project to capture those skills and tasks on paper. By creating four roles for each commodity — entry, experienced, supervisor, and manager — these documents can form the basis for job descriptions, interviewing questions, succession planning and to develop skills training, because they clearly define what is required for each role.”

How do you find the right training?

It may not always be easy to figure out how to get the training or skills you need, but there are a lot more opportunities today than there were 20 years ago. These include foundational farm business management programs like Agri-Food Management Excellence’s Canadian Total Excellence in Agriculture Management (CTEAM), Ontario’s Advanced Farm Manager Program, and Texas A&M University’s TEPAP (The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers), all giving a comprehensive grounding in many aspects of farm business management.

There are also innumerable top-up learning options such as webinars, conferences, online learning, workshops and industry tours, as well as opportunities to take learning to the next level through peer advisory groups and management clubs.

Another option can be to put together an advisory board, providing for a mechanism for ongoing input from respected farmers or business leaders, and/or a multi-disciplinary team of advisers.

CAHRC asked farmers participating in focus groups across the country where they go to obtain learning. “We started compiling a list of places and resources. Although the number of educational institutions are few, they do a lot of learning through their associations,” says Biernacki-Dusza. “They also read magazine articles, books, blogs where people share their information, and they really like going to conventions and participating in seminars. That’s where they pick up a lot of knowledge and strengthen their networks.”

So it appears that there is still a lot of emphasis on networking, which in agriculture is a tried and tested way of gaining experience and insight, trading ideas and spurring innovation.

“Networking, for me, is the most important thing because when we search for information we often look to just confirm ourselves rather than asking the real questions or getting some different feedback from other people that have a different viewpoint,” says Zimmermann. “It’s the same with skills development; we tend to do what we like to do, but sometimes you have to go the hard route and challenge yourself to learn the things you need. How do you identify that? There are lots of programs out there, so go out and see what you want to learn but don’t go to the same variable rate seminar 25 times — try to learn something different.”

Challenge yourself

Norm Hall couldn’t agree more. Hall, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, farms near Wynyard, Sask., and says his thirst for knowledge began 30 years ago when he became a delegate for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.

“They were big on training their delegates and board members, and I started doing some of the training in things like public speaking, learning to read a financial spreadsheet, and also training about the grain industry. They took us to Vancouver and we did tours of the Canadian Wheat Board, Canadian International Grains Institute and the Canadian Grain Commission,” he says. “The big picture becomes so much bigger when you see that kind of stuff and you realize how little you actually know.”

Hall believes that getting off the farm and involved in commodity or industry groups is important for building both networks and knowledge. “It’s much easier for extroverts rather than an introvert like myself to get out and seek out new opportunities and new people to meet, and to do all this learning, but that’s part of the training aspect too,” he says.

But now he tells himself: “Just get over yourself, get out there, meet people and learn.”

Focus on skills

A new report by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth chaired by Dominic Barton, “Building a Highly Skilled and Resilient Canadian Workforce through the FutureSkills Lab,” emphasizes the need for workers to build skills throughout their working lives.

The report recommends broadening the workforce through a number of initiatives supported and aligned with the agricultural industry’s own recommendations. The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Value Chain Roundtables and the Labour Task Force, a committee of the CAHRC, recommends within the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Action Plan, addressing critical labour shortages, increasing the supply of labour and also recommends support for the training that farmers and their workers need.

The report also recommends more focus on skills, because research shows that there is currently an emphasis on formal credentials — education and work experience — rather than acquired skills, often meaning that employers don’t recognize the range of skills a potential employee may have.

“When people take welding or carpentry courses through the community college, they don’t necessarily get a piece of paper that puts letters behind their name, but they have those skills,” says Hall. “We could do so much more by working closer with that education and that person to make use of their skills.”

Hall’s own son is a prime example of how this farm family values skill training. “My youngest son is getting his agricultural mechanic designation because he’s seen what’s been important on our farm is that both my brother and I, even though we aren’t designated mechanics, do all our own repairs,” says Hall. “By going to school and getting the training, not only is it useful to the farm, but he’s also got something to fall back on because it’s a skill that is always needed by others.”

The report also emphasizes the need for innovative approaches to help workers develop the skills they will require throughout their working lives, including more internships, co-op placements and apprenticeships, something that happens informally all the time in agriculture.

Zimmermann believes German farm apprenticeship programs could be a good model for more formal and specialized agricultural training programs for Canadian agriculture.

During their first year, German students attend school full time to learn the basics. Then they spend two years living and working on different types of farms — while attending classroom instruction one day a week — to get a different perspective and broaden their experience. Once they have done the three year apprenticeship they are qualified as a farmer, and after doing three years of practical work on their own farm, they can do some additional learning, and after demonstrating their advanced, practical skills they become a Master Farmer, which allows them to bring on apprentices to train on their farm.

“I think it’s important for young people to go away from what they have done always on the farm, and what they have seen from their parents all the time, and even for future managers to connect the theoretical knowledge with the practical knowledge,” says Zimmermann.

Specialized training needed

While on-the-job training is still prevalent in primary agriculture, there aren’t a lot of options for specialized training. “There are so many commodities that require specialized skills,” says Biernacki-Dusza. “It’s very hard to find a post-secondary institution that will teach you how to be an apple grower. They do have their formal programs but for people who want to specialize there is little training available. It is difficult to tie funding or program development to higher education in a lot of cases for agriculture.”

It doesn’t help that governments regard agriculture as a low-skill industry, something that CAHRC is battling to change. “When I talk to government, as an example, they seem to think that an entry level person can come in and drive a tractor, and I think they obviously haven’t looked at a tractor lately because these things cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and have a cockpit like an airplane. Farmers are not going to let an entry level person get in that tractor,” she says. “We need to do a better job of changing the mindset as to what the current skill levels really are for agriculture workers and where they get the training. Most of it is handed-down knowledge and on-the-job training.”

Farming is essentially a lifelong career for most farmers, and the need for continuous learning is at least as acute as in any other industry as the farm and its team evolve and have to adapt to constant change. “Whether you are the owner, manager or key employee of a farm business, it’s critical that continuous learning happens, so that as technology changes, and best management practices are updated, you’re not being left behind,” says Durand. “Most farm businesses want to ensure that their business is sustainable, not only environmentally but profitably, so there needs to be a personal investment in training to make sure that the different focus areas within a farm management plan are being addressed.”

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