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Going a distance to talk business with similar farmers injects fresh thinking and insight into these operations

Farmers love to talk to other farmers, as anyone who has ever spent five minutes in a country coffee shop knows. But it’s not always easy to have productive discussions with your peers if they are also your neighbours, and if you’re competing with them to rent or purchase land, or to sell grain at the best price.

That’s why some farm owners and managers are taking a page out of the business world’s playbook by forming peer groups.

Trena and Myles Fox who farm near Gravelbourg, Sask. had tried joining a corporate peer group in Regina, but it wasn’t proving to be a good fit for them, so they jumped at the chance to join the First Farm Managers Network once they heard about it.

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“We see a huge benefit in networking with other farm families and learning how other top producers are trying to find new solutions to old problems, and looking at things from different angles,” says the couple. “We have to set goals for ourselves, which makes it real and accountable. There’s nothing like talking about your goal with 20 other people to put the fire in your belly to get it done.”

Today, they are members of First Farm Managers Network, a peer group involving the owners and managers of nine farms from Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. It has been active for about a year, with the group meeting face to face in Regina about three times a year.

As a peer group, it’s providing a valuable and effective platform to host candid discussions about farm management topics.

The First Farm Managers Network was deliberately established with farmers from three different provinces to give geographical separation and prevent any competitive issues, but that separation also meant that it was important from the beginning for the members to learn about and become comfortable with each other.

“It’s important that the people involved build relationships so they can get to the level of trust that’s required to make a group really effective,” says Jacqueline Gerrard, a farm business consultant with Backswath Management, which had the idea for the peer group and has been facilitating and offering administrative support for it.

“When the group meets, the daytime is for the meeting and agenda discussion, and the evening is set aside for social interaction,” Gerrard says. “I think participants often learn as much after hours as they do in the formal discussion.”

Making the peer group takes a commitment to understanding and talking about their own business, the Foxes find.

Making the peer group takes a commitment to understanding and talking about their own business, the Foxes find.
photo: Carey Shaw Photography

Accountable to your peers

Kristi and Dustin Burns of Windy Poplars Farms near Wynyard, Sask. were also looking for a way to do some benchmarking and professional development with people who are their peers but not their neighbours.

The Burns say they’ve been impressed by how quickly the group has developed trust. “Over the three meetings we’ve attended, the trust and candour have really grown,” says Kristi. “The last topic the group discussed was an employee conflict issue and people were able to speak openly to that because they have developed a comfort level with each other over the last few months.” The greatest value of the peer group is being able to have frank and honest discussion with like-minded people, says Dustin. “We all want to have a professional farm and good work/life balance, and to be leaders in our industry,” Dustin says. “We have implemented things that we have seen and heard about from other farms already. Whether it’s weekly meetings, or ways to deal with employees, or ways to deal with people we rent land from, it has been really valuable for us.”

10 Steps to a successful peer group

Below are essential elements of a successful peer group based on experiences of the First Farm Managers Network, a peer group of nine western farms, with thanks to facilitator Jacqueline Gerrard of Backswath Management. For more background see next page for this month’s AME Management column, entitled “Peer Groups” by Backswath’s Terry Betker.

1. Identity
It’s important that the peer group has a name and develops its own vision with a charter and bylaws as to how it is going to function. That said, the intent is that the group eventually takes ownership and decides how it will run it and who will facilitate and organize the group.

2. Facilitation
A well-functioning peer group should have facilitation, and it’s usually best to choose a facilitator from outside the group, and be prepared to pay for the professional service they offer. The facilitator doesn’t have to be a subject matter expert, and it’s not his or her role to give opinions about the topics discussed. The facilitator’s job is to find out what the members want to talk about, set the agenda, and make sure everyone gets a chance to talk and no one is dominating the discussion.

3. Organization
Organizing a peer group takes a lot of time and energy which few farmers have time for. This is another reason why peer groups don’t pop up organically. A facilitator is the logical person to perform this role. Arranging meeting dates and facilities, setting deadlines, and sending out information so the participants can prepare for the discussion are all important to ensure that participants get maximum benefit from their time together.

4. Farmers lead the discussion
Peer groups are a farmer-to-farmer discussion forum. Each farm group brings a farm management topic to the meeting that they want to discuss. It can be anything from employees and finances to succession planning or the right equipment-to-asset ratio for the operation. Everyone gives input.

5. Trust
To avoid competition, peer groups often bring together farmers who don’t know each other. It’s essential they become comfortable enough with each other to have open, honest discussions. A peer group meeting should always include time set aside for members to socialize and build personal relationships.

6. Accountability
Each person brings a personal or work-related goal to the group, which creates accountability, because they then follow up at each meeting with a report about how that goal is developing.

7. Focus
From the start the peer group must determine its focus. The First Farmers Network decided to focus on farm business management instead of production, with topics such as how to manage growth, where to invest, how to involve family, managing time, leadership, human resources, and how to structure the management team. Each group’s focus will depend on the farms involved.

8. Mindset
A peer group can include any size or type of operation from feedlots to potato farms, and in any geographical location, and farmers of any ages, but the most important thing is that they all share a common, progressive mindset and are open to new ideas.

9. Measuring progress
Being able to measure progress towards a specific goal or the effectiveness of changes implemented as a result of group discussions helps reinforce the value of the group, and helps participants to set realistic timelines for themselves in the future.

10. Commitment
Group members need to be fully committed to attending meetings and participating openly and honestly in the discussions.

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