There was a time when going up against your neighbours in a plowing match was the best and sometimes really the only way for farmers to assess their skill level. But that was then. Today, farm businesses have grown way more sophisticated and, although they still aren’t always easy to find, skills assessments have improved too.
Since 2000, the Purdue University Extension has been offering a skills assessment they call “Are Your Farm Business Management Skills Ready for the 21st Century?” It’s no more than a simple collection of checklists which ask participants to rate their own abilities in a wide range of categories, including production management, procurement and selling, financial management, personnel management, strategic positioning, relationship management, leadership, and risk management.
Neither long nor exceptionally scientific, the tool was created to help farmers think more concretely about the activities they perform and what skills will become more critical to their future success, says Craig Dobbins, one of the original authors.
In fact, says Dobbins, the team of researchers who wrote the assessment (he was a member) were driven at the time by a need for succession planning tools. Recalls Dobbins, “We were just trying to get people to think about what they bring to the table and what the business needs, especially with family businesses where the main criteria in joining the business is simply being family.”
As it turned out, the list did make a great conversation starter, and Dobbins personally witnessed more than one occasion where it successfully changed family discussions into a much more focused and professional process. Dobbins says he doesn’t really know just how often the assessment has been used because it’s now so widely available, but initially they had hoped it was something farmers would consider using regularly as a way to track their own progress in professional development.
The authors also hoped the systems would see farmers transfer management tasks to other members of the team or hire the expertise where they lacked it, rather than allow identified weaknesses to persist without working to correct them.
Of course, the system could also help farmers find their inherent strengths and do a better job of building on them as part of their business’s overall strategy.
As time passed, however, the extension service itself moved to using personality assessments instead, Dobbins says.
“We found that getting people to talk to one another was more important than identifying skills, and the Myers-Briggs assessment really did help,” Dobbins says.
“I think that there is a place for skills assessment in managing your career,” he continues, and he believes it’s always good for managers to know as much about their own strengths and weaknesses as they can.
Nor, really, does he think most farmers would be shocked by what the assessments uncover. Instead, he sees them more as confidence boosters that help to confirm things people think they know about themselves already.
But personality assessments are not to be confused with skills assessments, says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director at the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC).
While the Myers-Briggs assessment may have uses in succession planning, it doesn’t tell you whether someone is well prepared for a specific job. “Personality assessments are about characteristics that define your personality and don’t necessarily have any relevance to a position,” MacDonald-Dewhirst explains. “What you really want are knowledge and skills to be aligned with the position.”
Once you have someone working at the job, you can then go further by examining their competencies, described as the underlying factors that have an impact on how people get work done, not just what they do.
CAHRC has also created a database of national occupational standards and competence profiles. In creating skills assessments, they worked with an extensive network of farm managers, workers, and specialists to specifically focus on positions in primary production. Their latest project, the Labour Market Initiative, will go even further to outline skill shortages on farms across the country when it’s released in March.
In truth, however, it’s actually something of a concern that farmers’ ability to think clearly about skills assessments is likely to become even more important, MacDonald-Dewhirst says. That’s because, as many farmers would agree, human resource management isn’t something they excel in.
“Farmers are really good at what they do, they’re focused on production, and they didn’t go to school to study human resource management,” MacDonald-Dewhirst says, “but whether you’re managing yourself, family, consultants, or staff, you’re managing people, and you’ve got to do it in an effective way or you’re leaving money on the table.”
Although many of the tools offered may appear to be tailored to farm managers with a lot of staff, MacDonald-Dewhirst says farmers can also apply the skills assessments to themselves. Business people who want to conduct their assessments privately are encouraged to do so. In fact, she thinks many farmers would get great professional development value out of identifying their own strengths and where they could use some assistance or additional learning opportunities.
For example, Sandra MacKinnon, who works for the Prince Edward Island department of agriculture and forestry, says she has personally seen skills assessments be used well by farmers in her region through the Future Farmer Program (FFP).
When the program was launched in 2003, one of the critical pillars that was developed for it is now known as the Farm Manager DACUM Chart. MacKinnon says that basically, they collected a group of farm owners and managers together for a few days to talk about what they all do on a daily basis. After they’d listed all the skills they needed to do those jobs, they organized the list into general areas of competency, highlighting the skills that the group felt were most critical for a new farmer to work on first.
Today, when farmers enrol in the FFP program, the first thing they need to complete is a self-evaluation that questions their abilities in 200-plus skill areas. “Some future farmers love the idea of going through the checklist, others are less enthusiastic,” MacKinnon admits. “Personally, I really feel it helps to focus in on areas that you may not have as much confidence in.”
Much like the Purdue checklist, the skills assessment used in P.E.I. covers financial, human resource, production and marketing skills, but also addresses record management, regulation interpretation, communication, environmental management, and personal competency development skills.
Interestingly, the two largest general areas of competency were the business strategies and personal competency groups. However, when the group identified core skills critical for new farmers to learn first, production management became the largest of the general areas.
Simple as it may sound, MacKinnon says, it’s really helpful for young farmers to identify that “Manage herd/crop health,” “Prepare product for sale,” and “Monitor and control costs” are more important to learn immediately than “Secure insurance,” “Plan tax strategies,” or “Evaluate genetics.”
“Time is so precious to people who are just starting out,” she says. “They’re going to be very selective in what they are choosing and what skills they want to improve.”
Once the five-year guidance program is complete and these new farmers are completely on their own, MacKinnon doesn’t know how many will revisit their original checklist to re-evaluate their progress or identify new competencies to begin developing. But the chart does very effectively demonstrate how skill development does evolve through a farming career.
Many mid-career farmers will master the basics and can start to develop other identified skills, such as succession planning, lobbying, dispute resolution, developing comparative standards, systems evaluation, and maintenance of personal health.
Regardless, whether you’re just starting out or whether you’ve been in the industry for years, mapping a path of professional development can be a lot more strategic, and also a lot more rewarding, than it used to be.