Years ago, the common wisdom was that farm kids should try something else before coming back to the farm, and many parents had two things in mind when they gently nudged their fledgling future farmers from the nest: encouraging them to go to school and try an off-farm career.
To start with, farming wasn’t a sure thing, and if you hadn’t tried and tested your passion for it by seeing whether you might be equally — or more — happy in another career, you couldn’t tell whether you would have the discipline and determination to stick with it through all the tough times.
Plus, more and more farmers were seeing that sending their kids off to work in other careers meant they came back with a better understanding of how a business works, why it’s important to do what the boss says, and what it takes to earn a promotion.
It’s why Len Davies, a farm business adviser at Davies Legacy Planning Group (and a farmer in Ontario’s Kent County) still tells his clients that if their successors work off-farm first, they will emerge as better farmers.
But Davies says the advice doesn’t always go down as well as it used to.
The reason is easy to understand, he says. Mainly, it’s because farms have had more available cash in the last few years.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good reason.
“Back in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s and even the early 2000s, there wasn’t a lot of money,” says Davies, so farm kids were encouraged to work for a few years for a third reason. It was so they could earn some money while waiting for their parents to edge closer to retirement.
Davies doesn’t just preach this stuff, he lived it. After graduating from the University of Guelph, he worked for Shur-Grain, a division of Canada Packers. He also clocked time as a research analyst with the Ontario agriculture ministry, and as a field operations manager with Agricorp before buying his own farm in 1980.
One of the great benefits of getting off the farm is to broaden your understanding of what it takes to succeed, Davies now says. “Because if you grow up on the farm you tend to see what your parents are doing, and you don’t have that chance to look from that far of a distance… In the working world, you get to see what other people do right, and what other people do wrong, and it makes you that much better of a farmer.”
Laura Reiter agrees. Working off the farm “takes the blinders off,” she says.
“It’s a real eye-opening experience to see how many different ways there were of doing things,” Reiter says.
Reiter farms with her husband, Jack, and brother, Bryan Clair, near Radisson, Sask., and when Country Guide talked to her earlier this fall, she was getting ready to host her extended family for Thanksgiving, a tradition she inherited with her grandmother’s oak dining set nearly 15 years ago. Her family also gathers around that table for Christmas dinner.
“I don’t think we’ve missed one since I got the set,” she says. Some years at Thanksgiving the family pitches in around the farm. But with the early October snow this year, there would be no digging potatoes, she says, chuckling.
It’s hard to imagine Reiter as anything but a farmer. But she didn’t plan to come back to the farm as a young woman. “I was full-throttle into doing research and working in the industry.”
While earning a science degree in agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan, Reiter spent her summers working for the university on wheat pathology. After university, she worked for the Sask Wheat Pool’s research farm near Watrous. She then took a job with Ag-Quest, a private research company.
Reiter has also spent time in ag retail, first in chemical sales. And once she did step into farming, she worked as an agronomist for a local independent ag retailer before her son was born.
So how did Reiter shift from a job to running a farm? It turns out it started as a fairly simple progression.
She had some money, so she invested in farmland. “Then I ended up farming it,” she says.
Finding the right job experience
Some off-farm jobs are better than others for successors. Davies doesn’t give a lot of points for driving a combine for other farmers. He’s more interested in banking jobs with Farm Credit Canada or an ag lender, for example.
One of Davies’ young clients worked as an ag lender with TD Bank before stepping back into the farm. “When I sit down and talk to that boy, he’s got ideas. I ask him what the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of the business are, and he lays them out.”
Davies is also a fan of jobs with some of the big agchem or similar companies too. The key is to find a job with ongoing training, so the successor develops a learning mindset. “When I left Agricorp, it was learn, learn, learn and keep learning.”
Davies is big on that learning mindset for a reason. When he was a kid, the farmers who worked the hardest were the most successful. Once he started farming, success was tied to managing the farm well. But going forward, successful farmers will be the ones who adapt to change quickly, because change is coming so fast, he explains. Being comfortable with the status quo is not an option.
By joining the off-farm working world, a farm kid will not only see other ways of doing things and bring other ideas back, they will also adjust to change more quickly, says Davies. “They’re going to be more confident in themselves.”
Reiter and her husband both have ag degrees, but they didn’t hang them on their wall until quite recently. Finishing their degrees marked the beginning of their learning, not the end, she says. “The piece of paper just meant that we were able to learn.”
University itself was an “eye-opening experience” for Reiter, as she went from a class of 11 kids in her rural school to a class of 200 or so. Her high school classmates wouldn’t believe she’s the same person — she transformed from a shy bookworm to a woman who has served on multiple boards and seems perfectly confident talking to nosy reporters.
Reiter’s job experience also helped her with the detail-oriented side of farming, such as documenting pre-harvest intervals. “I’m getting to spend a lot of time in the office now, and the detail that you learn to do in research certainly helps with that.”
Her time in ag retail helped her on the farm, too. For example, she understands how retail works, and that retailers have a little “wiggle room” on pricing. “I’m not afraid to go back and ask for a better price on something or see if they can do a little better”
She also gained a better understanding of what sales reps deal with, which benefitted her relationship-building skills. In sales, there are two kinds of people, she says. There are people you like dealing with. And there are people who are frustrating to deal with because they don’t give anything from their side, she explains. “There’s got to be a give and take.”
As a farmer, she likes to be a good person to deal with. “I like it when the chem reps like to stop by. Or the dealerships, they’ll stop by because they’re in the neighbourhood.” They know they’re welcome on her farm, she says. And she’s not always pressuring them into something.
Reiter says an early off-farm career makes a person more confident that they really want to farm. “If you never leave the farm, I’m not sure at what point the decision becomes yours instead of Dad’s or Mom’s.”
Davies agrees. Off-farm experience can also help a successor to develop the long-term vision to see out 10 years, rather than just focusing on today. “It helps you become a CEO of the business rather than just an employee and a manager.”
Once a successor has their own vision, they can make their own long-term plans to achieve that vision, Davies says. “You’ve still got to manage the day-to-day operations, but you tend to have that little edge.”
Davies says successors with off-farm experience tend to nudge parents to step back more than those who stayed on the farm. They’re more confident, he says, and have an idea of what to watch for.
That’s not to say those successors know everything. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Davies talks about being a conscious incompetent, meaning someone who knows they have a lot to learn.
“That’s good. And then you become a conscious competent because of what you’re learning.”
Davies also sees successors who don’t adapt to change. He says they tend to be people who started farming right out of high school.
“And they’re quite happy because they’ve got a small farm that’s probably paying its way right now. But it won’t be in existence 20 years from now. They’re the unconscious incompetent, and they don’t even know what they don’t know.”
They’re also the hardest to change, Davies says, because they’re comfortable.
Help for those who didn’t
Future farmers who didn’t pick up the necessary skills and attitudes before coming home to the farm need not despair. There are other ways to get to that goal.
Davies and his colleagues do a skill assessment with successors to see where they’re at. Davies also encourages successors to enrol in programs such as the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program, an executive leadership program run by the Rural Ontario Institute. There are also all kinds of online resources and apps available these days to help people brush up and stay informed, he adds.
“And eventually, if they have the wherewithal, they end up going to the CTEAM. That’s what I tell them to do,” says Davies. (Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management, or CTEAM, is run by Agri-Food Management Excellence. It covers several aspects of business management. Farmers also use data from their own farms in business planning.)
When you go to CTEAM or the advanced farm leadership “you learn just as much from the guy sitting beside you as the person at the front of the room,” says Davies. Such programs teach people to step out of the box and become better networkers, he adds.
Young farmers might look to boards as another source of professional development. Reiter, for instance, has sat on boards with the Sask Soil Conservation Association and the Western Applied Research Corporation. She’s now chair of the Sask Wheat Commissions’ Research Committee.
“I get to see what’s going on in the research world even if I’m not part of it anymore,” she says, and she brings that knowledge to the farm, which helps with everything from managing fusarium head blight to trying new varieties. It inspires her to try new things that might help on the farm. And she gets to influence what researchers are working on, so their research will benefit producers.
“There’s also a huge people aspect to being on boards,” says Reiter. A lot of farming is about listening to what worked, or didn’t work, for other farmers. For example, learning how to deal with snow on canola swaths, “and the fact that it should be -10 C before you go out to combine it because then you don’t melt off the snow and plug up your combine,” she says.
Reiter’s son is now in Grade 12. She’s encouraging him to look at the possibilities beyond the farm after graduation.
“I mean, I’d be thrilled if he comes home to farm. But, on the other hand, I’d like him to see what else there is in the world.”
He’s math and science oriented, she says. “Maybe he’ll be the geneticist that brings us fusarium-resistant durum.”