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Does your farm team have the skills your farm needs the most?

Summer can be the best time of year to ask

“Our success depends on surrounding ourselves with competent, skilled team members,” says Farm Management Canada’s Heather Watson.

First, let’s start with something everyone can agree on. Investing in developing the skills of the farm team is vital for the continued success of every farm. It’s documented by Farm Management Canada’s Dollars and Sense study too, and by the finding that the number one practice of Canada’s top farmers — in other words, the trait that has the highest influence on farm financial performance — is that these farms actively seek education and skills development opportunities.

But on some farms, it can seem a daunting task. How do you identify the skills you and your team need the most? Where do you find the training to develop them, and how do you make sure your investment in time and money will be of value to the farm business?

So, where to start?

Doing a skills inventory to assess the people and resources available to your farm is as important as knowing what tractors you have in the shed. Skills are import-ant at every turn, whether you’re transitioning the farm to the next generation, expanding the business, looking to improve your risk management, or helping recruit the right people for the right jobs.

Jennifer Wright. photo: Supplied

“It’s important from the point of view of making sure you have the right resources and the most efficient, skilled team in place,” says Jennifer Wright, senior human resource advisor with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC). Understanding where your strengths and gaps are will help you know where you need to make improvements, she says, and where you need to hire new skills or establish new career paths for the people you have now.

But it isn’t a job you need — or probably should — do alone, says Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada. “Talk with family and other members of the farm team including employees, advisors, lenders and coaches to see where they think the skills of the farm team could be improved.”

Begin by breaking down the work that’s done every day on the farm operation and who does each job.

The CAHRC website has resources to help with this stage of planning, including an occupational framework and standards for primary agricultural production. It separates the duties and tasks that different people do, from labourers through to supervisors and managers.

“Looking at how those things change between the different levels can help break down the path, identify the work being done, who is doing it and the skills or training required to do it effectively,” says Wright. “It can also help a business as it grows by seeing where potential gaps are going to be.”

Every year, Farm Management Canada asks farmers what learning topics are most desirable to them, and the results are pretty consistent. Topping the list last year were: agriculture trends, economic and market outlook (63 per cent); cost of production and benchmarking (55 per cent); strategic planning and/or business planning (48 per cent); transition or succession planning (48 per cent); and marketing (48 per cent).

On the farm business management side of things, Watson says there are a number of tools available to assess farm business skills and competencies, like a free assessment tool available from “The tool walks you through the main areas of farm business management including strategic planning, marketing, transition planning, human resource management and financial management, and it allows you to assess your current practices and create an action plan to address areas of weakness.”

Does the person fit their role?

Along with thinking about whether the needed skills are there, the farm manager also needs to ensure that the farm has the right people on its team and also that they’re in positions that make the best use of their talents. “Just because someone can do a job, doesn’t mean they should do the job, as you may be missing the mark in terms of feeding their passion,” says Watson. “This can negatively impact their enjoyment for the work and their confidence in their work, and you could miss out on the opportunity to get the best from members of the team.”

In farming, the attitude is often that the farm manager can be all things to all people at all times. But, says Watson, while this may have been true in the past when farming was less complex, it’s certainly an impossible strategy for managing the farm today.

Heather Watson. photo: Supplied

“Our success depends on surrounding ourselves with competent, skilled team members to help us,” she says, “When you take a look at who’s doing what tasks on your farm, it may be wise to ask — is that the task they’re best suited for?”

Don’t be afraid to ask, she adds. Part of assessing the skills development needs of the farm team includes asking what skills development opportunities are of interest to your team members.

How to fill the gaps

Once you identify skill gaps, how do you figure out where to access the right training? That will depend on what’s needed and the resources — time, money and people — that a farm business has available.

“Some of it depends on what the skill requirement is, maybe it’s hands-on, on-the-job training by someone that has done that work or has that skill that’s already part of your team,” says Wright. “If it’s the business side of things, there’s lots of great resources on business planning specific to agriculture. If it’s health and safety training, there are a number of organizations that provide that, and there are apprenticeship, college and university courses and programs, but it really depends on what you identify as the needs.”

Farm Management Canada’s annual farmer survey has shown that workshops and seminars are the preferred learning format for most farmers, followed by webinars, self-study through internet search or research, and conferences, courses and programs.

“We also have field days, short-courses or programs put on by industry including farm organizations, input and supply companies, some provincial governments, extension organizations and private companies,” says Watson. “In recent years, we are seeing a slow but steady increase in interest in peer advisory groups and mentorship opportunities where farmers can learn from one another with the support of an advisor or coach.”

When making the decision about where best to put training resources to give the most value to the farm business, it’s important to be critical and evaluate the quality.

Online resources like webinars are easy to access and generally low-cost, but staying connected with what’s happening in the industry, and going to conferences, area meetings or industry meetings can be a great way to keep up-to-date with emerging trends and to identify new skills that may be needed in the future.

“Check online reviews, and if you’re looking at making a bigger investment, you might want to talk to friends or people in your network who may have taken that course or used that training program for their staff as well, just to get their thoughts,” says Wright. “Do that background research before you make the investment.”

Is it the right investment?

The Dollars and Sense study identifies seven management practices that drive farm financial performance. Topping that list is farmers who seek education and skills development opportunities.

The study found farmers can improve their profitability when they invest in these management practices.

It’s often the case that budget dictates the need to prioritize where farms make investments, and that’s as true of training and skills development as anything, so how do you go about making those decisions? A good starting point is to take a look at the farm operation’s strategic plan and operational goals, says Wright.

“Then see how the training you are looking at fits those goals,” she says. “Once you know your gap, then you look at the return on investment for the investment in the training. When you’re looking at the investment in training outside of it being yourself or the farm owner, you need to think about what you expect to happen as a result of training. Do you expect an impact on productivity, efficiencies, accidents, reduced errors? There are a number of things that you want to look at that are a cost to your farm that will be reduced by having the right training. Knowing what you expect to get from the training you select will help evaluate the type of training provided as well as if it gave you the desired results.”

Track not just the cost of the actual training but also the employee’s time to attend a course, webinar or whatever form the training takes, adds Wright. “Factoring in these things can help evaluate what you hope to get in return and where the value will be, and if it’s going to be a positive or a negative financial investment.”

But it doesn’t all come down to dollars and cents. When a farm owner invests in staff, they feel more valued and there’s a better chance they are going to stick around. “Then the cost of recruiting and training someone new, and all the associated turnover cost will be reduced as well,” says Wright.

Just as farmers track their costs of production, it’s as important to track the impact of improved training, which isn’t always as apparent as something like saving on fertilizer costs, but should eventually show up in areas like improved efficiency of operations or reduced accidents. Although it may be impossible to link those kinds of things to a specific training program, overall, the skills of the people working on the farm contribute hugely to the farm’s bottom line.

Also keep in mind, however, that while learning opportunities is one thing, implementing the teachings is quite another. “Learn by Doing” is a mantra taught in 4-H, and it applies to every learning situation, says Watson. “We find farm teams often improve the likelihood of implementing their learning when they participate in learning opportunities together, for example by attending conferences and courses and watching webinars together.”

Who needs training?

Often, we perceive that different generations have different skills, or need different skills to expand or take over the farm business, but in reality, the need for skills development crosses all ages and is a never-ending requirement for any business that wants to succeed.

“It doesn’t necessarily matter how long or what generation they come from, it’s the change in work environment and impacts of technology and automation on the way things are done, as well as keeping up with new regulations, biosecurity and food security, that are driving the need for constant updating of skills on farms,” says Wright.

Don’t overlook…

Training helps a business achieve its goals and get the jobs done that need to be done, says Jennifer Wright of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council. But there are more benefits too, including:

      • Increased productivity. Training and orientation help workers become productive workers as fast as possible.
      • Safer work environment. Training and orientation provide workers with the skills and knowledge they need to look after their own safety and the safety of others while at work.
      • Lower levels of turnover. Workers who are provided with training opportunities are more likely to stay with their employer.
      • Improved worker well-being. Training motivates workers and leads to greater job satisfaction.

Besides figuring out the skills needed to successfully manage and operate the farm today, the farm owner or manager also has to take into consideration the skills required to keep the farm and farm team healthy and motivated for generations to come. “As the farm transitions from one generation to the next, the roles of the farm team will change,” says Watson. “To make room for the incoming generation, it’s important for the current generation to transfer their management and decision-making skills and authority to the next generation. The older generation can move from primary decision-maker, for example, into an advisory role, providing mentorship and guidance to the incoming generation to pass on their experience and expertise over time.”

However, it’s still vital to consider any new skills that may be required for the future of the farm, and who is best to fulfill those needs. “The older generation may wish to consider developing and honing their skills on mentoring the next generation, and the incoming generation may wish to invest in developing their leadership skills to lead the team,” says Watson. “Business advisors and consultants can help identify the skills required for the future needs of the farm.”

Establish a learning environment

Creating a learning environment on the farm is as important as accessing external training. “If you have a good training plan in place, you can do simple things like maybe a daily meeting in the morning to say who’s going to do what that day, and perhaps a quick safety reminder,” says Wright. “Maybe somebody shares something new that they learned from a webinar that they saw or an article they read in a magazine. It’s so vital to create that learning environment for all your workers.”

Having some kind of mechanism in place for those who have participated in skills development to report back to the farm team can increase the benefits, says Watson. “Sharing learnings and how the farm and team could benefit can help build buy-in and momentum for making improvements on the farm,” she says.

Skills development is just one component of a good overall human resource plan, Wright emphasizes. “All of the best human resource practices are very much linked to each other,” she says. “You can’t just train and hope people will stay or do a better job. You can’t just pay them well and hope that they’re going to know what they’re doing. It’s all linked, and taking the time to ensure that you have that solid foundation of best human resource practices is essential to the success of how you manage your employees, including ensuring that any training you provide has a good return for your operation as well as the employee.”

Skills development resources

From Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council:

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