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The right next step

Peer Think: Brooks and Jen White have always focused on improving their management decision-making. For them, that makes a peer group a key growth strategy

These new peer groups are drawing rave reviews from their members. Are they the most inspirational and perhaps the most essential business idea of the new millennium? It’s a big claim, but it’s tough to argue against this newest iteration of farmers helping farmers.


Located in the extreme southwest of Manitoba, Brooks and Jen White’s 7,500-acre farm spills gently into Saskatchewan while its southern edge leans up against the U.S. border. They call their farm “Borderland Agriculture” and it evokes a scene from an old western, with bison grazing the gold and green prairie fields.

A closer look opens up a very different story, though. It’s one where scale and modern management practices are used to integrate their 600-head bison herd with a diverse cropping system, including stubble, winter and intensive grazing systems.

Altogether the Whites grow about 5,000 acres of a wide range of crops including corn, soybeans, peas, canola, fababeans, winter wheat, rye, hemp, and oats. Plus, this year, two thirds of the farm was managed with some type of intercrop, relay crop, or cover crop.

On this farm, though, pushing the boundaries of leading-edge management goes beyond diversifying their production system.

Business management gets equally intensive analysis, and the Whites are constantly learning, building strong financial management skills, and motivating a team of eight people.

It takes a mindset that values both learning and leading, they say, and for that the Whites believe they need to be able to look beyond the limits of their individual experience. Networking with others who can share their perspectives about how they have identified and addressed their own challenges is their foundational strategy for continued growth and success.

In other words, peer-networking groups give them their edge.

“I’ve really noticed how being part of these groups has impacted not only our conversations, but also our accountability as well,” Jen says. “We used to come home from seminars with all the enthusiasm, discussing how and what we could do to make changes. But it seemed that the excitement of it all would get set aside once we got back home because farm life would get back to being busy as usual, and nothing would get implemented.”

Now they come home, make a plan and put it into place so they can report back to the group as to how and what they have actually accomplished.

photo: Sharla George Photography

Networking can at times seem an extra burden on the family, and it can take them away from the farm, Jen says. “But all the networking with like-minded individuals leads to intriguing conversations which turn into innovative ideas that bring progressive change for our farm and for our family. And change is an amazing thing.”

A few years ago the Whites took CTEAM, a two-year farm management program in which the same group of farmers met four times across Canada. An important part of the CTEAM course was the networking and feedback that they received from other farmers, says White.

The CTEAM peer group helped the Whites find direction for their farm. At the time, they weren’t sure which sector they should focus their expansion on, but the answer from the group was clear.

The Whites had first invested in bison in 1999 with 33 head and had grown it steadily since. “They (the other CTEAM farmers) guided me and informed me in most of our group discussions that it was our bison operation that I seemed to be the most interested in, and that is where I should be looking into the future,” says Brooks.

But that was only the beginning of the benefits the couple scored from networking with others. One of the most important things, Brooks now believes, was how others were dealing with human resources issues.

“I learned that a lot of us have the same issues when it comes to HR and we are all learning,” he says. “Most of us as farmers haven’t been trained to manage people as much as we have to manage the operations.”

Even though his class graduated from CTEAM in 2015, many of the people who took the course have continued to meet and an informal peer group of the graduates formed in Western Canada. However, the logistics of getting even this smaller group together multiple times per year proved difficult and eventually it began winding down.

“After I saw the value from meeting with the same like-minded farmers in the CTEAM group, I felt I needed to continue this on a more regional level,” says Brooks.

So last year, Brooks joined a new peer group, only attending one meeting so far. It was important to him to join a group from outside his local area and outside his sector, but geographically close enough to not prevent their having regular meetings.

In other words, not too close, and not too far.

It wouldn’t work if the other members of the group were his neighbours. “There’s some level of comfort when you don’t know the people in your group or feel like you are competing with them in any way,” Brooks says. “It’s easier to disclose sensitive topics for discussion when you don’t have to worry about your ideas or concerns getting back to the local coffee shop gossip.”

And comfort is essential.

It becomes a more valuable experience when you feel you can open up any topic, says White. “With my previous group (at CTEAM) I felt comfortable discussing financial statements, future plans, land rental agreements, and employee issues. I wouldn’t likely do that in a meeting with neighbours.”

Hand-selected, like-minded

The peer group White joined is organized by Terry Betker and is called Backswath’s Peer-to-Peer Network.

Betker formed this peer group of mostly younger farmers last year, and is in the process of putting together two other groups this winter.

Four years ago he started the first one with a group of nine grain farmers from the Prairies. In the interim, a few have transitioned out and been replaced, but the overall group is still meeting three times a year.

It had started when one farmer pushed Betker to organize a peer group, something he had always wanted to try. After a conference call and some time gathering a list of names of potential farmers who would make for a strong peer group, the first network was born.

The book Power of Peers by Leon Shapiro and Leo Bottary of Vistage Worldwide lists five essential factors needed for peer advantage. At the top is selecting the right peers. It’s important to have individuals that the other members can relate to and who will foster valuable interaction.

Betker says he deeply enjoys facilitating the groups and has found several key ingredients to their success. First, actively selecting members, which means putting together people with similar challenges and yet farms that are not in competition with each other.

Members must also pay a significant annual fee. Brooks says the cost to joining the new group is about $3,000, but he has no doubt the return on investment will be much more than that, after a couple more meetings. After just the first meeting he already took note of a couple of new things to look into that may work for their own farm.

“It only takes one good idea that you find another producer is doing that you can implement on your operation to recover that cost,” he says.

Accountability

Secondly, Betker has found it’s essential to put the group in the members’ hands, so the group selects the topics to discuss and it produces the general vision of what they want out of the peer group.

The group also develops a charter defining how it will manage itself, who can join, and how people are expelled.

Backswath’s groups work in annual cycles of three meetings, usually two in a central location like Regina and one at a member’s farm. Meeting on the farms of members creates an opportunity for fellow group members to witness firsthand the challenges or problems the manager maybe doesn’t recognize, sort of seeing the blind spots. And they get to know each other better by seeing what their home and farm actually looks like and meeting their families.

In the fall, each member presents a business overview of their farm, including strategy, vision, what they want to accomplish in the next five years and how they are going to get there with the people, assets and finances involved.

This is the part of peer groups that pushes accountability between the members — one of the keys to a successful peer group, Betker says.

It’s particularly motivational because, in the following meetings, the members each have to report how they are progressing on those goals, says Betker.

Sounding boards and sharing

Each participant is expected to benefit from a meeting but must also contribute. The concept is that the farm should be challenged but not criticized.

Huge value comes from a farm owner having to answer good questions, especially when the discussion brings in fresh expertise and practical insights into what works and doesn’t.

Brooks says the members find there is value in being able to openly communicate with people completely disconnected from their own organizations, and who are not intertwined in their family or business hierarchy. This way emotions, ulterior motives, pre-conceived biases or family history are removed from the equation.

Participating farmers can use their peer advisory group as a sounding board, in the same way a large corporation uses its formal board of advisers.

Diversity in this new group may be a little lacking but Brooks hopes they can add some people from different sectors. More importantly, he says they’re all successful business-oriented people and regardless of what industry you are in, the objectives of running a successful business are the same.

Furthermore, many different management and leadership styles work effectively so being involved in a peer advisory group, exposes members to styles different from their own.

Trust: a crucial element

Betker says most farms send multiple people to meetings. While Brooks attended this new group meeting by himself, Jen has become involved with the CTEAM group. “I think there is value to having multiple people from the operation join the group,” he says. “It only makes sense that more minds will capture more benefits.”

Backswath’s groups select the topics of discussion annually, and one group recently started bringing in a speaker for specific topics. So far, the topics have ranged from improving business family communication, to expense reduction, to technology.

At every meeting they sign confidentiality and privacy agreements.

Betker has noticed that after about the third meeting, groups start being comfortable enough to drill down and freely share ideas and information.

Eventually his longest-standing group began adding softer topics to the planning agenda, like how to deal with stress. “Now it’s not all business,” he says. “Sometimes it’s personal, family stuff.”

Although peer groups are not intended to act as therapy groups where people commiserate, there can be comfort in knowing that someone else is going through similar challenges, especially when it comes to soft issues. And sometimes ideas on how to resolve these issues are priceless. Other times it’s just about affirming what you think might work.

Brooks met a farmer at his first meeting with the Backswath group, before the formal meeting even started. During their chat, he learned of a unique succession plan that the farmer was in the middle of on his farm. It was the same idea that Brooks had been rolling around in his head for their farm in the future. “I had just met someone who would have gone through this before we were ready to even consider moving this way,” he says. “Right then I felt that there would be valuable advice going forward from this producer on this topic.”

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