If you challenge yourself to describe a farmer in 10 words or less, before you’re halfway through, you’ll find yourself reaching for words like independent, autonomous and self-reliant.
And no wonder. With all the risks and stresses of agriculture, farmers have earned the rights to that image of strength, resiliency and self-determination.
But, as every farmer also knows, it can also go too far, and the way you can tell it has gone too far is that you find yourself thinking that the only person your farm really needs is you.
Today’s farms are big business. To survive in the 21st century farming game, farmers know they need to leverage all of the business skills necessary in any other business.
The harder question is: do farmers always recognize what skills they need to foster in themselves? Do they set a priority, for instance, on getting better at networking?
Networking is not what you might think (thank goodness!), and if your first response to the concept is “Ugh,” you can bet it’s time for a rethink.
Networking might make you think of assertive strangers, or of aggressive salespeople always pressing for business. You know the kind, always pushing their business cards on you, and droning on and on about the service or product they hope you’ll give in to.
So, as you might say to yourself, why would you want to learn anything about networking? Who wants to start ambushing people on the street or at business events, holding them awkwardly, frustratingly, uncomfortably hostage in the name of furthering your own business?
Not you, that’s for sure. Because that’s the last thing a good networker would do.
Like everything in life, networking can be done the wrong way (the way you’re imagining) or the right way (the way that could make a significant difference to your farm’s bottom line and your farm’s business health).
Networking does need to matter to you, though, because networking is about encouraging others to care about you, your business and what you produce enough so they want to invest even a little time, energy or, yes, money to help you reach your goals.
Though high-calibre connections are valuable, so too are the relationships that encourage small changes: someone believing in your story, choosing your farm over someone else’s for a grain contract, putting in a good word about you with others.
“This is not just agriculture, this is not just farmers. This is about people. It’s about life,” says Donna Messer, president of ConnectUs Canada. “You have to build relationships so you have cheerleaders out there.”
A leading expert in networking, Messer says that whether she is consulting to top-tier financial institutions, boards of trade, major law firms, or even universities and colleges, or whether she is working directly with farmers, her message is the same. The true currency of business is personal relationships. When properly cultivated and leveraged, personal relationships can be put to mutual benefit, even if you produce commodities, not highly differentiated brand goods.
Direct-to-consumer and niche agricultural marketers generally understand that telling their story and building relationships with their consumers are key to customer loyalty and business success. But does that apply to the large majority of agricultural producers who grow commodity products for sale to industrial processors or large-scale distributors?
Absolutely, the experts say. Setting yourself apart always makes a difference.
When the ship springs a leak
“If there are 25 farmers and they all grow the same thing, there will come a time when one of those farmers will stand out. It’ll be about who they know — guaranteed,” says Messer. And if you’re not that guy, it’ll be a tough pill to swallow knowing that he’s making more money than you simply because of who he knows.
Second, you need to be the first to swim if your unsinkable ship ever sinks.
It was in ancient Greece that a philosopher first said: “The only thing constant is change itself.” Given that this adage remains as true today as when Heraclitus said it 2,500 years ago, odds are good that the market you believe is entirely stable, and the customers you believe are totally reliable probably aren’t that stable at all.
And when change happens, your only safe plan is to be prepared.
“What is, will not always be,” says Messer. “Ask, how do I prepare myself?” For instance, if you’re a wheat grower, and you’re in a jam because the local basis is so bad, or because the local elevator has stopped accepting deliveries, who do you know that you can talk to who might know someone who might take on your wheat at a reasonable price?
“How do you explore opportunities?” asks Messer. “What kind of strategies can make the person you want to talk to want to talk to you? That’s networking.”
Networking is about building real relationships. In fact, networking only works when it is beneficial to both parties. Let that fully sink in. Both parties. That is why in-your-face sales networking does not work.
Rather, networking is about providing relevant and timely information to a party who is not only primed to receive it, but actually wants to receive it.
“I’m not going to try to sell you anything until I know who you are. I’m going to ask you some questions and find out who you are. You’re going to care because I took the time to do something for you. If there are five of us all with the same product, and I took the time to learn about your family, you’re going to choose me because I took the time to care,” says Messer.
The networking how-to
People can be split into three key personality types. Auditory personalities are the life of every party. They are natural networkers who love to work a room. (As you’ve probably guessed, those people probably don’t need this article.)
Kinesthetic personalities make up much of the background hum. These are people who are most comfortable talking one on one, and who prefer an in-depth conversation to a brief and superficial chat.
Finally, visual processors prefer a purpose for conversation and are least likely to be comfortable in a large group setting.
Great networkers understand that the person they are networking with may have a different way of processing the world than they themselves naturally have, and they are able to adjust their conversation style to be more comfortable to the other person.
“People like people who are like themselves. They buy from them, they sell to them,” says Messer.
The solution? First, remember that the world needs all three types, then ask yourself what you could do in order to reach that person in a style that would be comfortable to them. While an auditory personality might need regular contact, a kinesthetic might need a more directed effort, and a visual personality might prefer a solution-based conversation to an emotional exchange.
Second, remember that while your goal is connection, you don’t have to connect exclusively via your product. You are not just a farmer. You might be a parent, a passionate supporter of an art form, a sports junky, a fisherman, a foody, a car lover. Many others in this world share your passions. In fact, you can find commonality with anyone if you seek it. Relationship starts with finding common ground.
It’s not just you
You aren’t the only person trying to network. In fact, everyone who hopes to be successful in any field needs to actively network. Even more important and more basic, it is human nature to seek commonality and connection with others. Therefore, remember that the people you are attempting to connect with likely want to connect with you too.
“Why don’t you ask me if there’s anything I need? That’s kind of what the world is all about,” says Messer. “There’s enough room for all of us to dance on the same floor. All we have to recognize is that we are listening to the music, and that at least some of the steps are the same.”