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Managing more, working less

For Lauren and Ryan Maurer, it’s the challenge of 2021. How do they keep from getting personally overwhelmed as the farm gets bigger and more complex?

It was 27 years ago that Lauren and Ryan Maurer moved to Lauren’s family grain farm near Grenfell, Sask., and started with 800 cultivated acres. In 2010 the couple was named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers, and now Land and Sky Grains seeds 24,000 owned and rented acres. Another 3,000 acres are committed to pasture and wildlife habitat, a choice Lauren says is part of their effort toward environmental sustainability.

Country Guide wanted to know, how does that kind of change in size and scope happen without swamping the operation’s management capacity and inundating the personal lives of family members?

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Every expanding farm wrestles with this. Land and Sky, though, seems to succeed not despite it, but because of it, and we sat down with Lauren to look for the key insights that make this possible.

It takes passion and organization, she tells us. Plus an ability to let go.

That last might seem counterintuitive. Since so much more is at stake, wouldn’t it be natural to hang on tighter so as not to lose control? Maurer would say while that might be your first inclination, it’s not your best.

“Ten years ago we were going flat out,” she says. “We were young and hungry. Sometimes you don’t stop because you love it and don’t want to stop. Over time we had our (four) kids working and playing alongside us, but eventually finding a balance became a problem.”

Make a plan

In order to avoid overwhelm, it’s important to know what your farm is about and to understand why you exist, says Maurer. This means developing foundational statements about your business and using these to guide decision-making.

The vision at Land and Sky Grains is “Empowering Sustainable Agriculture,” and their mission “to seek fitting and viable growth opportunities.” These are backed by a strategic plan that includes four pillars: efficient production, enhanced marketing, growth in finances, and intensified management.

“Relationships are paramount,” says Lauren, with husband Ryan and daughter Cassandra, now a junior partner. Each have defined roles and accountabilities.
photo: Sandy Black

The term “viable” is an important one. Expansion over the years included direct marketing initiatives such as the value-added (and paperwork-heavy) world of identity preserved grains. At one time 75 per cent of cereals and malt barley production at Land and Sky Grains went into IP markets in Canada and around the world, but, ironically, as IP has gained traction the Maurer’s participation in it slowed due to inconsistent and elaborate identification systems.

Maurer says the process became too time-consuming, taking up valuable management capacity without the necessary payoff. Looking at their vision and mission statements and considering how they want to spend their time and energy, the couple has explored and grown other niche crops like caraway seed and coriander and they are putting acres into alfalfa and clover to maintain soil health.

A good lesson

Something that is working today may not work tomorrow. If you can hold it up to the light of your vision and mission, it is easier to be objective about what is happening and pivot to something new. Is it, as their mission statement says, “fitting”?

When looking at a new venture, it’s relatively easy to calculate the limits on finances and staffing, Maurer says. “It’s kind of like science; a replicable expansion is easier.”

The unknown is management capacity. It was the return of daughter Cassandra with certificates in both agricultural machinery and business that made it possible for Land and Sky to take on a truck and trailer servicing business. They had shop space and an interested third party wanting to partner.

But expansion is not without limits and those limits are not always financial. The truck servicing venture was good until it wasn’t. Personality and management styles clashed and the Maurers had to look hard at the culture they were trying to create and their vision for their farm.

“Who you are as a family and a business have to come ahead of what an outside person and business brings to the table,” Maurer now says.

The relationship was terminated, but the idea is very much alive and will be considered again in the future, Maurer says, who looks back at this experiment and doesn’t see failure so much as an opportunity to learn.

It also chimes with cutting-edge business thinking. At Agrifood Management Excellence — the organization that delivers the Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management (CTEAM) program — president Heather Broughton says the trick to bringing a vision to reality is “to understand what growth means and manage it.”

Internal and external analysis is required to understand an operation’s current financial and management capacity as well as markets available for diversified products, she says. “You need to see far enough ahead so decisions are being made when you’re prepared for the opportunity and can make decisions without panic.”

The value of structure

One of the key indicators for a new venture is the time and money available, and how much its success will require a reorganization of both, adds Eric Micheels, associate professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of Saskatchewan.

“It has to be analyzed with potential risks in mind and meet the stress test of interest rate hikes or a disaster like COVID. Do you have the financial slack to cushion the risk or is any blow going to be fatal to the whole company?… This comes down to how you structure the new enterprise as well in order to cushion the larger, older business from any failure.”

There’s a great degree of trust in this family business relationship because no one person can be all things in an operation this size.
photo: Sandy Black

Micheels says with low interest rates today there are ideas being funded that would not have been when rates were higher. “There’s an abundance of cheap capital. This frees up managers to take up some experiments and try things on a small scale so they have more data before making the final decision.”

Usually diversification comes from the younger generation, Micheels also finds. “The older is more risk averse and want to preserve wealth while the younger have more time to recover from a potential failure. The flip side is there is not as much financial slack so failure can be catastrophic to the young. Again structure becomes important if the expansion is part of a large multi-generational farm.”

As owners of Land and Sky Grains, Lauren and Ryan Maurer each have defined roles on the farm; Ryan is in charge of operations, land and business development, and crop sales; Lauren focuses on administration, human resources and finances. As a junior partner Cassandra contributes to each area, keenly aware that someday many of these responsibilities will be her own.

“We try to stay out of each other’s boxes,” Maurer says. “If Ryan looks at the spreadsheet I’ve created, he typically just nods. I look at his production plans and do the same thing.”

There’s an unusual degree of trust in this relationship, but it’s necessary because no one can be all things in an operation this size.

“Ryan laughs that we fired him,” Maurer says. “He hasn’t run a tractor or combine for any significant number of hours in six years. He was always on the phone or radio and so it is better for him to be headquartered to deal with changes, issues or opportunities that arise. Otherwise we would make mistakes and lose efficiency because he’d have to shut down to go deal with something.”

Her husband gave up hands-on operations in order to lead, freeing up management capacity to give attention to the critical details like precision seed placement, grain management and uninterrupted flow of harvest logistics, as well as to the big picture.

Says Maurer: “Instead of working in the business, you work on the business… strategy, tactics, the big questions about why we exist.”

Leadership

The Maurers long ago gave up on “bedroom meetings” (if you’re a farm couple you know what that means, and there’s nothing sexy about it) and set aside specific time for discussion as owners and with their staff.

“Agriculture is about people,” Maurer says. “We feed them, we employ them, we partner with them. So relationships are paramount.” Whether it’s with their children, buyers or their numerous employees, the couple keeps everyone involved.

“Ultimately the person with their name on the top of the form has to make the decision,” Maurer says. “But we go round the table… we have debate and share ideas. It has to be put on the table now so it doesn’t bite you later or when it’s too late and you’ve already started a new project.”

She laughs imagining all her kids coming back to the farm. “What happens when there are six owners around the table?” she asks. “We will have to be even more structured and have more open communication.”

“Good leadership is knowing you have blind spots, and listening and being open to others telling you what they are.” – Erick Micheels, U. Sask.
photo: Sandy Black

Eric Micheels says the analysis of a new venture should include exactly this type of consultation with partners, employees and lenders.

“You want to make sure you’re not caught up in the excitement and unaware of your own blind spots, pushing ahead regardless. Good leadership is recognizing you have blind spots and listening and being open to others telling you what they are. It reduces the probability of missing something or ignoring things you don’t want to see.”

“A willingness to take on some risk aligns with the definition of leadership in my mind,” Micheels says. “It’s being okay with trying something new.” So, too, is the ability to make the decision; at the end of the consultation, the person at the top of the form should be decisive. “Decisiveness is a required leadership skill, knowing when to stop analyzing and make the call.”

So, too, leadership requires the ability to see the expanded capacity of others not as a threat but as a gift. Lauren Maurer sees their returning children as an exciting opportunity to take on the new ideas and the energy the younger generation brings to the table.

Many of the leadership and management skills at Land and Sky Grains have been acquired through education.

Education

Education has been a focus from the start, both Lauren and Ryan are graduates of the CTEAM program, and Lauren is currently studying for her MBA with a focus on mentorship, learning and coaching.

The goal is to ensure effective leadership on the farm.

They’ve extended the learning focus to their children, investing in their education, knowing that the tech and marketing abilities the kids bring back to the farm will open up new management capacity and exciting new diversification opportunities.

From there “you have to empower employees to do a good job,” Maurer says. “We try to pull long-time employees into lead roles.”

Training is provided around equipment operations and maintenance, with management expectations well communicated, building trust and respect across the operation and giving employees the confidence to ask good questions and provide the right information, Maurer says.

A good understanding of leadership and life-long learning have seen Land and Sky Grains successfully expand and diversify over the past 27 years, leaving a promising farming future for the next generation. It’s the value of vision.

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