Go with your strengths. Then find resource people to help you fill in the gaps. That’s one of the guiding management principles of mother-daughter duo Sharon Hart and Valerie Hobbs who own and manage Blythe Brae Farms near Woodstock, Ont.
Hart and Hobbs share responsibility for operations, finance, human resources and marketing at Blythe Brae Farms where they farm 3,300 acres as well as operate a grain elevator and soybean roaster. Their skills are balanced by long-time employee, Stephen Broad, who heads up farm production.
Hobbs adds that she surrounds herself with people who love what they do, and she listens and learns from others as much as possible.
Most of all, Hobbs says that like any business, serving the customer is the most important thing you can do.
This management philosophy has paid off for the century farm which has operated out of its current location continuously since 1893. When the dairy barn burned down in 1967, the family shifted to cash crops and they haven’t looked back. Today they grow 1,300 acres of corn, 700 acres of wheat, 1,000 acres of soybeans and 300 acres of coloured dry beans. In 1988, the soybean roaster was added to roast soybeans for livestock feed.
Hobbs attributes their long-term success to their dedicated and professional staff. In total there are six full-time employees and three seasonal staff for harvest and planting. Several of the staff members also have their own farms which they manage and co-ordinate with Blythe Brae (which means “Happy Hill” in Gaelic) on equipment and labour.
“Our key value-added market is the roasted soybean,” says Hobbs. Blythe Brae has been roasting soybeans for over 25 years. It’s a process that heat-treats the soybeans to eliminate a compound called trypsin inhibitor which would otherwise interfere with their use as hog and poultry feed. Blythe Brae also roasts at a high temperature for ruminant markets.
Hart agrees that teamwork has played a critical role in their continued success. “We try to assess and capitalize on people’s strengths,” says Hart who ensures that at least two people know how to do every job in case people are away due to illness or vacation. “This also minimizes the risk of an untrained person doing a job,” she adds.
Safety is a priority at Blythe Brae Farms, says Hart. Staff is trained each spring before planting and each fall before harvest. “We try to avoid operator fatigue and try to be careful with inexperienced young people,” she says.
“When it comes to safety, we are focused on continuous improvement,” adds Hobbs.
Transitioning more responsibilities to a broader base of the staff team has also been a goal during the past year, says Hobbs. “The goal is to allow for greater engagement of younger staff by allowing them more responsibility and decision-making. We hope it will also allow the farm management team to focus on the big picture stuff.”
With several staff and family members involved in the farm operation, having effective communication systems in place is essential at Blythe Brae. A farm management meeting is held every Friday to review and set goals for the farm. The production manager establishes weekly goals and at the daily production meeting each staff member chooses their tasks for the day and records them on the “daily plan chart.”
Hobbs admits that during the busy seasons the written plan falls out of use (when plans often change by the minute) but it is helpful to keep them on target during the slower times.
When time permits, Hobbs says they aim for decision-making to be shared by all members of the farm team. If there is disagreement, they bring in outside resources — individuals or advisers who can help them reach a mutual decision.
To keep family members not directly involved in the farm abreast of what’s going on at the farm and in agriculture, Hart posts current farm articles and photos on a bulletin board in the house. “It helps family members to understand the business and relate to our challenges, and it promotes discussion,” says Hobbs.
To promote a positive work culture, during the past year employees have been encouraged to bring in a treat to celebrate their birthdays with the other team members. “This has ranged from coffee and donuts to a home-cooked lunch. It’s allowed us to share and celebrate with each other,” says Hobbs.
Hobbs and Hart have shared their position since Hobbs joined the family farm in 2000 after completing a degree at the University of Waterloo. Hobbs says her co-op job placements were valuable training for her current role. “There is incredible learning in work experience outside your private business,” she insists.
Businesses need to be able to change and adapt, so being a lifelong learner is the reality, says Hobbs who credits her mom with encouraging her and filling in for her while she travels. A recent trip to Taiwan pushed Hobbs to try new things (both food and culture). “It’s an experience I take with me as I think about Ontario agriculture’s role in the greater world context.”
Hart believes travel provides an excellent educational opportunity. She has travelled in the American Midwest, Australia and New Zealand. She stays at farm B&Bs where she says she learned a lot. She points out that the first no-till drill purchased by an Oxford County group of farmers was an idea that came from Australia.
Hobbs also participated in the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program Class 11 which she says helped her take on a leadership role in agriculture. “You gain more in serving outside your farm business than you can imagine,” says Hobbs who has recently been appointed to the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission and previously served as a director of the Ontario Soybean Growers Association. “Both positions have allowed me to learn from colleagues, gain better communication skills, and better understand the broader industry,” she says.
The Southwest Ag Conference, her local Soil and Crop Improvement Association, their grain broker, farm publications and Twitter are other sources of information that Hobbs values for staying current.
Blythe Brae doesn’t take huge risks when it comes to making changes. “We operate in a continuous improvement mode. It’s easier to improve 50 things by two per cent than one big thing by 50 per cent,” Hart says.
Hobbs agrees. “We have continued to grow slowly as opportunities come up. We consider the long-term benefit of everything we do to not only the farm but also for the people.”
They do, however, take calculated risks that are deemed appropriate, says Hart. They bought a new seed drill that was twice as wide as the old drill and it paid off with the wet weather in the spring of 2014. They have also invested in a vertical tillage tool to help keep soil in place and allow it to warm up faster.
“Being right-sized with equipment is a challenge,” admits Hart.
As corn yields have increased, they have expanded their grain drying capacity. In 2013, a new grain dryer was installed and integrated with the existing dryer which now operates as a cooler. “We anticipate greater efficiency and better corn quality from the new system,” says Hobbs.
Market volatility, adverse weather and operating independently in a consolidating industry are the three biggest challenges they face, says Hobbs. To reduce market risk, Hobbs buys and sells grain in small increments throughout the year. They establish targets for pre-sold grain that they can ship at harvest to match their storage capacity. Having their own storage and trucking allows them to keep grain moving year-round, explains Hobbs. For their own farm crops, Hobbs says they make use of futures positions when they are not able to get a good local basis.
Blythe Brae has benefited from having both her and her mother involved in the marketing, says Hobbs. “Another person can provide a sober second thought on decision-making and remind the other one of the overall marketing plan,” she says.
Sharing a position has also allowed Hobbs to gradually take on more responsibilities. “We sometimes disagree but for the most part I appreciate her steady guidance,” says Hobbs who hopes her mom will continue to be involved in the farm for as long as she wants in any capacity she chooses.
Keeping good financial data records so you can understand the business and be prepared when you meet with advisers is another core management tenet at Blythe Brae. Since 1984 Blythe Brae Farms has relied on the AgManager software from Illinois-based AgriSolutions Inc.
“It was one of the first programs to allow detailed reports based on enterprises, which allows you to better understand your business for management purposes,” says Hobbs. The software captures a lot of detail which can be used for decision-making. For example, they can look at a specific field, at all the no-till fields or take a critical look at fuel costs, says Hart.
Having detailed financial records also helps when they go to the bank. The bank is an important part of the team, says Hart who always provides background on Blythe Brae Farms such as what they do and what their goals are. “Don’t make the assumption that the person you are talking to is the only one looking at your records,” she says.
Hobbs sums up: “The slow and steady turtle best describes our management philosophy. Blythe Brae remains a farming business and we will continue to look at new production, processing and marketing opportunities.”
This article first appeared as, “Better together” in the March 17, 2015, issue of Country Guide