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The best two days

Peer Think: Kristi Nylen-Burns doesn’t need convincing. “It’s the best decision we’ve ever made for our farm,” she and husband Dustin say of their decision to join a next-gen peer group

Today’s farmers are opening up new territory, with more complex challenges and opportunities, says Nylen-Burns. “We’re all trying to be as professional as we can.” – Kristi Nylen-Burns

These new peer groups are drawing rave reviews from their members. Are they the most inspirational and perhaps the most essential business idea of the new millennium? It’s a big claim, but it’s tough to argue against this newest iteration of farmers helping farmers.

How do you calculate your most productive day? If you’re like most farmers, you probably count it in rows planted, acres harvested, livestock loaded for market. Wynyard, Sask. grain and oilseed farmer Kristi Nylen-Burns uses a very different measuring stick. She says the most important and lucrative days of her entire work year are spent sitting at a conference table.

For the past four years, Nylen-Burns and her husband Dustin have invested two full days, three times each year, to talk business strategy, best practices, challenges and opportunities with a peer group of individual farmers, farming couples, and father-son partnerships from nine other farms. If you’re imagining a group of farmers sitting around coffee-shop style, boasting about farm wins or casually shooting the breeze, think again. Nylen-Burns’s peer group, organized and facilitated by Backswath Management, is driven by radical transparency, intensive teamwork, hard work, and — ultimately — results.

“Working with a peer group is the best decision we’ve ever made for our farm. I definitely want to still be part of it in a decade,” Nylen-Burns says. “There are so many great, really progressive farms doing amazing things. Having access to other farmer’s ideas — and reciprocating too — was something we couldn’t pass up.”

Ultra-high expectations

Like any successful peer group, Nylen-Burns’s group holds each member to ultra-high expectations. Meeting attendance and homework completion are givens. Conversation is intense and intentional: each farmer is highly committed both to the process and to the other group members. Confidentiality is absolute.

The group meets each December and March somewhere urban and central — usually Regina or Winnipeg — and then again in July at one of the group member’s farms. Experts on a variety of management topics present at some of the sessions; other sessions are wholly intensive group discussion lead by Backswath Management CEO Terry Betker.

Kristi Nylen-Burns says skilled facilitation is crucial to her group’s success.

“It is so easy to get off track, especially if you start talking equipment or other things that people are passionate about. Terry (Betker) keeps us on track. He draws people in. He holds us accountable and sets the professional tone. It would be very easy for the whole process to go off the rails without a strong facilitator.”

“The expectation is that if someone shares something that you know they wouldn’t want shared outside the group, you don’t speak of it ever except with those people. We all agree that if there were a breach of trust, members could be asked to leave the group. That would be devastating since peer group is our very favourite thing to do,” she says.

Honesty and openness start on day one; all members understand the group’s success depends on members’ willingness to really invest in each other.

“There has to be a willingness to be vulnerable with the group. You’re not going to get anything out of it if you’re not sharing, if you’re not collectively working through whatever management struggle you’re going through,” says Nylen-Burns. “And you have to care. You really have to care about the health of your farm and the health of other people’s farms.”

Farming is complicated. Like most farmers, Nylen-Burns contends with many of agriculture’s biggest challenges (access to land, finding and keeping employees, juggling multiple roles, navigating change) and is working towards multiple business priorities (fostering growth, increasing resiliency, working through succession planning).

x photo: Dave Stobbe

Like many in her peer group (and many farmers in general), Nylen-Burns operates a farm that has a complicated structure. She and her husband opened Four Winds Farm in 1998, operating alongside and in co-operation with Windy Poplars Farm, the farm her in-laws (John and Linda Burns) started in 1975 and still operate today. In 2003, close family friends Doug and Bonita Reeve purchased nearby land and added Windy Ridge Acres to the co-operative business. Five years later, Nylen-Burns’s brother- and sister-in-law, Tyler and Janelle Burns, added a fourth farm — Wayward Wind Acres — to the mix.

The Burns’s and Reeves’ semi-joint business means that, though each of the four farms owns land separately, they manage their land as a whole group, sharing certain infrastructure and tasks, leaning on each other for support, and maximizing efficiencies through teamwork and partnership. Huge positives aside, the structure does add multiple layers of challenge: partners who are in very different life/career stages, a third generation nearing adulthood, a large combined acreage requiring dependable employees, growth/change decisions ahead.

Best practices

Nylen-Burns’s peer group has helped the couple navigate many of these complex challenges. In addition to learning from peer group members who have walked certain paths before them, Nylen-Burns says one of the most important and helpful tasks the group invests in is designing best practices.

“We are all trying to be as professional as we can,” she says. “Everyone wants to come at it from a level higher than just the family farm. When we are challenging each other to bigger and better, there aren’t really any industry standards to go by. There’s not even policy for that because farming is exempt in so many areas. Employee standards, wages, benefits, environmental practices: we’re trying to get those right ahead of mandatory requirements.”

Despite being part of her peer group for four years, Nylen-Burns says she is only getting started.

“You can never be on top of professional development. Peer group has driven that home for us. It is so key to be constantly improving, constantly revisiting your plans and business structures.”

“People have this idea that farmers go out and drive tractors, and then go on vacation for four months. That’s not how it is. Farmers have to be good at so many things. We have to make what we’re selling and then be really good at the selling too, and at the HR and the marketing and a million other things. A peer group is so encouraging, so helpful, so inspiring. It has been invaluable to us.”

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