Hiring an agricultural consultant: 5 questions you need to ask
As Canadian farms have become larger and arguably more complex to run, a new class of agricultural consultants has emerged. These include not only lawyers and accountants, but advisors in areas such as production, marketing and technology.
Terry Betker is one of them. President and CEO of Backswath Management Inc., he and his team advise farm family clients in areas such as finance, human resources and succession.
If you’re in the market for a consultant, Betker believes it’s worth taking the time to ensure you get the right person for you.
What are your qualifications? “You want to know how much experience they have in their field,” Betker says. “It’s not impolite to ask. It’s just good business.”
Can you provide references? Ask for names of producers your prospective consultant has worked with. This might seem obvious, but Betker himself is asked for references only occasionally. “You don’t have to call all the references that are provided,” he says. “But if you ask for names and don’t get any: red flag.”
Do you understand what I need? Misunderstandings around scope of work can be a cause of friction between farmers and consultants. Betker recommends the two parties draft, review and sign an engagement letter with all the details.
Who else is on your team? If you meet one person for the interview, but someone else comes to the farm, it could get the project off to a rocky start. Ask for names and qualifications of all personnel who would be involved. “You want to know who’s doing your work,” Betker says. “If the farmer knows who’s on the team, they don’t have to wait if the primary contact is travelling or not available. They can call another member of the team and have their questions answered.” That’s also important in the event the primary contact retires, leaves the firm or is unable to continue working.
What will this cost and when do I pay? Ask what the consultant will charge, and at what points you’ll be expected to make an interim or full payment. A farmer can ask to hold back a portion of the fee – perhaps 15 per cent – based on successful completion of the project. “While generally common in industry, a holdback is not that common in farm management consulting,” Betker says. “For larger consulting projects, it wouldn’t offend me at all to be asked.” Make sure you know not just the amount of the fee, but the basis for it. Is the fee calculated hourly, by project, by farm unit managed or some other way? “It’s important for the farmer to try to avoid equating value with time spent,” Betker says. “Value and time often aren’t connected in a linear way.”