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The right mentor

More young farmers could get a career-expanding lift from a great mentor. Could that be you?

As a lifelong farmer and accomplished entrepreneur, Alberta-based rancher and author Brenda Schoepp knows a thing or two about operating a thriving business. And it turns out she knows a thing or two about mentorship as well.

As a mentor, what she understands is that success isn’t about giving young farmers the answers to their problems. It’s about enabling them to find their own answers by challenging them to think critically about where they want to take their lives and their farm business.

“We will tease your mind, but we’re not going to provide you with the solutions,” says Schoepp who, as a Nuffield scholar, researched the creation of agricultural mentorship programs for women in developing countries.

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“I might go as far as to say, ‘I have seen this work,’ but I will never say, ‘you should,’ ‘you could,’ ‘it would be better if you did,’ or anything like that.”

This skill does take time to master, Schoepp says, but when properly applied, it enables mentors and mentees to avoid the biggest mentorship pitfall — a relationship where the mentor is focused on duplicating their own business and unable to identify or meet the mentee’s needs.

“That is the real critical piece,” says Schoepp, who currently mentors 40 people in several countries. “Our role as mentors is not to create someone who mirrors us, it’s to empower someone to be who they were born to be and do what it is that they want to do.”

Chris Bodnar agrees. The organic farmer from British Columbia has seen mentorships go south when mentors try to recreate their own business, or when mentees attempt to emulate their mentor’s business.

“When you try to transpose that mentality of needing to do the same as someone else onto a mentorship program, it creates a lot of difficulty, because then the mentor isn’t able to listen,” says Bodnar, who works with the business-focused Young Agrarians mentorship program.

Chris Bodnar
photo: Supplied

“You don’t know everything about the farmer next door,” Bodnar says. “You don’t know how much debt they have, what their relationship status is like, what their stresses are like and so on. So you can’t mimic them. They may have a completely different context than you do.”

Bodnar adds that the first step to ensuring that neither party is looking to recreate an existing farm business is to match the right mentor with the right mentee. Then create a list of agreed upon goals.

But there is more than one way to connect with the right mentor or mentee. While programs such as Young Agrarians and Young Leaders, offered by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, use application processes, mentorships outside established programs are possible and rewarding as well.

For Schoepp, connecting a young producer and a mentor can be more spontaneous.

“People are at different stages in their lives and you may be at a point in your life where you meet someone at an industry meeting or at the pub or at church, whatever the case may be, and you know you want to talk to that person,” she says.

It’s another thing she has learned: “when the student is ready the master appears.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any formalities involved, Schoepp says, but knowing someone is the right fit for mentorship can sometimes be a gut feeling. From there, goals need to be set and both parties need to understand what the priorities of the mentorship are.

“I don’t think there is one set definition for mentorship,” adds Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada (FMC). “Ultimately, I think that it is really the relationship between the mentor and the mentee that is the inspiration that leads to learning, growing.”

While FMC’s STEP UP program was cancelled after a funding shortfall in 2013, the organization is offering what it learned from the popular program to anyone developing their own mentorship scheme. Watson says the key pieces of advice are that mentors and mentees must have an excellent rapport with each other, and they must share an understanding of what the mentorship will provide and how it will provide it.

The mentee also needs to be heavily invested in the process to benefit from the journey, Watson says, noting that a strong mentorship occurs “where enthusiasm meets experience.”

For FMC, the process of matching mentors to mentees included face-to-face meetings where goals, preferences and timelines were established. Schoepp, too, begins the mentorship process with an in-person meeting, something she says is crucial to the mentorship process.

“My secret is I meet them on their home turf, during a meal,” she says. “Because it’s very critical that you are assigned a mentor that matches you, knows where you want to go with your mentorship, who you are, who they are, and that sort of thing, so it is still really important to meet each other at some point in time — preferably right at the beginning.”

The first meeting

That first sit-down gives the mentor a window into how a mentee interacts with their family and their farm business, Schoepp says. It also provides a mentor with a good idea of what the mentee needs to work at in both life and business.

But those interactions are not an opportunity for critique or criticism, which the international mentor stresses is not the goal of mentorship.

“With some folks, to be honest, you can see what they have to address in the first five minutes of meeting them, but it might take them a year to come to that point themselves,” explains Schoepp, emphasizing the role of a good mentor isn’t to point out trouble spots, it’s to guide an individual as they come to understand themselves better.

“In a way, they already know what it is they need to address, but they don’t have the confidence to go there yet,” Schoepp says. “And if I were to say that, to point it out, before they discover it, it will never happen and you end up maybe having a negative effect on that person’s future growth.”

Watson adds that the first meeting between mentor and mentee should also be the beginning of the goal-setting process. Ideally, the young producer will list what they want to accomplish during the mentorship and establish a timeline of regular check-ins to see if those goals are being met.

Bodnar agrees with it all. “Having structure is really valuable, because a lot of time in business, mentorship is more informal, someone will approach someone else they admire or who is doing something they like, and ask if they will be a mentor, and in that regard the mentor doesn’t, or may not actually know what is involved in being a mentor, and the mentee may not know what they want to get out of it,” he says.

Bodnar adds that some of the most rewarding experiences he’s had as a mentor are when the person he’s mentoring hits the reset button partway through the experience, because the mentorship has brought them to a new realization about their business. Setting the stage for that experience, however, requires a mentorship structure flexible enough to let either party hit pause and re-evaluate, but formal enough to have regular meetings about the mentorship itself so that changes can be made as it progresses.

To that end, Farm Management Canada makes use of a “learning contract” where mentees outline what they are hoping to take away from the experience. The mentor then says yes, I can work on these things with you, or no, this is outside of my purview.

“We didn’t want to make it too complicated, but we ask for the mentee to put down five outcomes that they are looking for in the mentorship, and then we get them to agree to the goals and what the mentor can provide,” says Watson. “Then that would be used to guide the process.”

The learning contract should also outline a process for regular meetings to discuss the mentorship and make adjustments. In the case of the FMC mentorship program — which included at least eight weeks of on-farm experience — it also allowed participants to take a step back from day-to-day operations and to re-examine their progress.

“They would obviously be together a lot of the time, but then they would also have these meeting to come together and specifically go over how things are going in terms of meeting those targets. That’s the time to ask, are there things that are still missing or that we are concentrating too much on? Are there any gaps?” says Watson. “You really want to give a sense of being grounded and be able to look back at the end of a mentorship and say, ‘okay, how did we do?’ And hopefully you will meet and even exceed your expectations by having those preliminary conversations.”

And nothing should be off the table when it comes to mentorship, Bodnar says, even if a farm mentorship pushes someone away from a career in farming.

“Sometimes I look at it like a marriage prep course, and the best outcome of a marriage prep course is that some people decide not to get married… likewise in mentorship,” says Bodnar. “Sometimes you realize that you don’t really want to continue with farming or that you don’t want to continue with the direction you’re taking at that point. Maybe a different business altogether is right for you.”

Tackle the taboo topics

Bodnar also believes that a successful mentorship, particularly in business, requires that both participants be at ease discussing something still seen as taboo or impolite — money. In his experience, being able to openly discuss issues around finance is the best way to get young farmers and business owners past the feelings of anxiety they have about taking on debt, filing taxes and complying with regulations.

A good mentor will also be able to point a mentee towards technologies, resources and even coaches that will help them tackle the nuts and bolts issues that are holding them or their business back.

“I myself realized really quickly that if you look at the records you need as an administrative burden, you’re missing the fact that these are records that every farmer should have,” he says. “So you take them and say, ‘You know you don’t have to go and invent it, it’s all there’… and that is when you see the lightbulb actually go off, when people see the kind of reports that you can create and that there is a system there and you can help them get into it.”

Just knowing that they have a mentor to reach out to when they hit a roadblock can help young farmers move forward, says Bodnar. And once a mentorship is established, that act of reaching out can be as simple as sending a text message.

Watson says new technologies can be a boon to mentorship, once the initial contact and rapport is established. Skype, FaceTime, Facebook, phone calls and email are all tools that help facilitate a successful relationship.

“Mentorships can happen at a distance,” says Watson. “It is still best to meet face-to-face, but there are some mentorship relationships where you never actually meet the person… so mentors can take various shapes and forms, and mentorships can have different formats,” Watson explains.

Schoepp says she relies heavily on phone calls after the initial period of getting to know a person, but finds it works best if calls are scheduled in advance.

“That way the mentor knows they have the time to talk, to listen, and the mentee has had time to think about what it is they want talk about,” she says.

How long a mentorship lasts depends on several factors, but at the end of the day Schoepp says the relationships are often lifelong.

Ultimately, the goal is to leave mentees with the confidence, skills and contacts to do what they wanted to at the very beginning, says Schoepp.

“You do need to have an end time, a time where sort of the formal mentorship comes to a close, but often the mentor and the mentee continue their journey together,” she says. “What I find is that by nature, after a couple of years, I’m not needed anymore, and that leaves space for another person.”

Go outside the family

Most often, choosing a relative is the wrong way to pick a mentor.

As tempting as it might be to combine kinship and mentorship, experts say fresh eyes and ears can bring new perspectives in a way that dear old Dad or your auntie just can’t.

“You want to choose the best person and not just default to your family because it’s easier,” says Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada. “Often times in farming and specifically family farming, we talk about all the different hats that people wear — you’ve got your farmer hat on, your parent hat on, your aunt or uncle hat on, your cousin hat… and possibly even your ‘mediator of the family’ hat on, so whatever the family dynamic is, it definitely has an effect.”

Often someone within the family has too much baggage, or they may be too invested in a career or business to offer effective mentorship or formal guidance.

“It goes back to the idea that you can choose your friends, but not family,” says Watson, adding that if you can choose your mentor, so much the better.

Brenda Schoepp has studied mentorship programs and says it is absolutely essential to have someone outside of your family fill the mentor role.

“This is really critical, because if you are all living in the same space, and you say well my dad, or my mom, or my uncle is my mentor, you are already in a situation where they are trying to create someone who mirrors them or their business, and you do not want that,” says Schoepp.

Besides, adds Schoepp, you may be missing out on some of the biggest reasons why you should be looking at a mentorship in the first place.

“A lot of folks on farms have mentors that don’t have any farming background at all,” she explains, “because their desire may be more on the personal development side, or it could be on the business side, so we see a lot of that.”

Ultimately, the goal of the mentor is to liberate a person’s thinking and inspire a mentee to move towards new ideas, she says.

But in a family situation where both mentor and mentee may have a current or future financial stake in the same business, discussions can often devolve into disagreements about which direction the farm should head in.

“The mentee would not be liberated in that case,” says Schoepp.

However, that doesn’t mean knowledge and attitudes aren’t passed on from one generation to another. It’s just that expecting a family member to facilitate personal growth and provide on-farm guidance without bias is unrealistic.

Watson says within every family there is an undefined and informal mentorship that can yield both positive or negative results, depending on the circumstances, but that it doesn’t replace the benefits of having an objective mentor without family ties.

Young farmers need to be encouraged to try new things and take risks, without having the pressure of the family farm in the back of their mind, Schoepp says. “It’s just dicey to rely on someone wearing all those hats.”

About the author

Field editor

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist for Country Guide.

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