Peer groups are not a new concept. They have existed for years within different industries in several different types of applications. They are also known as peer advisory groups, business-to-business discussion groups, and peer advisory boards.
Farmers have used external resources to help with management challenges for years. Accountants, lawyers and lenders are long-established sources of advice and assistance. More recently, farmers have been using advisers who have specific expertise in production and marketing.
As farms increase in size and complexity, the range of resources will expand to meet other needs, such as advisers who have experience and expertise in human resource management for farms.
Another management resource that is gaining popularity among progressive farmers is the peer group.
A peer group consists of a small number of people who get together in regularly scheduled meetings to share insights on experiences and performance.
This is definitely not the breakfast group at the local coffee shop. Instead, a peer group has a high degree of structure and formality.
Some of the reasons why farmers might join a peer group include:
- Strengthen/advance management practices
- Affirm or challenge how things are being done
- Build collegial relationships with farmers with similar management mindsets
- Introduce an element of accountability to ensure that things are getting done
- ‘Board of Directors’ for the business
- Input and feedback on management issues
- Share management and decision-making approaches
- Potential for business investment and development
- Learn from other farmers’ experiences, i.e. from people who actually have skin in the game.
Typically groups have five or six farms but can have up to 10. Having more than 15 requires careful facilitation so each individual is actively involved in the discussion. A well-structured group doesn’t have “freeloaders.” Each participant can expect to benefit from a meeting but must also make a contribution.
Peer groups whose participants are progressive and have a business management orientation have better outcomes.
One of the challenges in forming a group is determining if the members are actually peers. The purpose is NOT to have a group of farmers who agree on everything. The purpose is to be challenged but not criticized.
Farms should be at least a half-hour apart so members are able to speak freely and openly. Farms can have similar or diverse operations but there should not be any element of competition.
Danny Klinefelter, professor and extension economist with Texas AgriLIFE Extension and Texas A&M University, says that farmers who are able to own their weaknesses and are willing to accept suggestions and criticism will get the most out of a peer advisory group.
“If you can check your ego, learn to listen and be open to problem solving and sharing some details of your farm’s business, you’ll do well in a peer group,” says Klinefelter.
Meeting structure and frequency
Members must be prepared to make the commitment and investment (time and money) to attend. Three key success factors are trust, respect and confidentiality. Participants should sign a statement acknowledging confidentiality.
Groups decide among themselves how often they want to meet and what the focus of the peer group will be. The focus can be very specific, such as production practices. Or they can have a broader or more general management orientation.
In-person meetings are required, especially while the group is being formed so that relationships can be established. Meetings can be anywhere from a half-day to two or more days.
The group should develop a charter or set of bylaws to define how it will manage and govern itself, who can join, and how people are expelled. Groups function better with a hired facilitator whose role is to:
- Plan and facilitate meetings (including logistics)
- Co-ordinate data collection where applicable
- Prepare reports
- Get things started
- Ask questions to ensure everyone is participating
- Move things along if getting bogged down
- Provide input and contribute to the discussion when appropriate.
I’ve been in lots of discussions with farmers in the past year who have a real interest in the peer group format. Formed correctly and with the right participants, a peer group can have great benefit.
I personally have been involved in a consultant peer group for nearly three years now. Our group has eight members with seven from the U.S. We meet four times a year (twice in person). Similar to a farmer peer group, we talk about best practices, challenges and issues. I find it to be hugely valuable.
Terry Betker is an instructor in AME training courses (www.agrifoodtraining.com) and a farm management consultant with Backswath Management Inc. He can be reached at 204-782-8200 or [email protected].