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Sharing knowledge - a major part of any successful farm transition

10.5 min read

Someday, the keys to your farm will be handed to someone else - and it will probably be someone younger with less experience. Are you ready to get them up to speed? Are they ready, and do they have the skills required?

Owning and operating a farm is complex and requires many different skills and experiences. It ranges from having a gut feeling that the ground is still too tacky to work, to building a network of information resources to help with marketing decisions.

There’s a lot to know, and new skills are required to take full advantage of new technologies. Processing the incredible amount of data that can be collected using sensors on equipment, in the field and the barn is one example. Robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things will change agriculture. Managers need to know how to optimize these technologies on their farms. It’s a daunting challenge for a new farmer or someone taking on management responsibilities that they haven’t had before.

That’s why transition must include training and mentoring. It’s not only about passing on assets and a business. It’s passing on and developing knowledge.

Your ceiling can be their floor

As the senior generation, think back on how little you knew when you started and how many hard-fought lessons you learned. Under good leadership, an organization continues to thrive even after the leader leaves. Putting people in place that can take your vision and run with it while applying their dream is how any business maintains success over multiple generations.

It takes real leadership to share control with trainees and teach them what you know. Ultimately, the farm business will need someone prepared to take the reins when you’re ready to step away from the farm.

As the senior generation, there are two pitfalls you want to avoid:

  1. Leaving too early. There’s a risk that you don’t prepare the next generation adequately and leave too early. You can’t always control the timing - tragedies happen, retirement timelines change, the future is uncertain. But your knowledge and experience are two of the most critical assets on the farm. Don’t leave without passing on as much as you can.

  2. Not leaving early enough. Hold something too tight, and you squeeze the life out of it. For the next generation to continue to grow and mature, you need to open up your process to share your knowledge, invite your successors to learn, and give them responsibility so you can mentor them while you’re still around.

The younger generation needs to be proactive

If you’re the younger generation, you have a responsibility too. What’s your plan to identify the holes in your knowledge and fill in the gaps so you can step into managing a complex business in a competitive marketplace?

Leaders are lifelong learners, especially in agriculture. When stacked up against their peers, a commitment to continuous learning is one of the things that sets top farm managers apart from the rest.

Training and developing the next generation takes a combination of on-the-job training, off-farm education and mentorship.

Here are the who, what, where, when, why and how of training.

Why training is important

Good people are the heart and soul of any business, and farming is no different. Experienced, well-trained people are worth a lot. They make better decisions, see opportunities more clearly and perform better under pressure.

It’s not a weakness to admit you need help or that someone else might do a specific job better than you. Being willing to seek advice and training is key to profitability. In benchmark comparisons, the most efficient producers are 10 to 15 times more profitable than the average in small and large operations.

The best managers focus on their strengths and get help where they need it. No matter how good you are, there are things you can learn from other producers. There’s always someone doing it better – learn from them.

There is training available for almost everything – even soft skills that may not be directly related to farming practices. For instance, improving your communication skills could be the most positive change you could make in your operation.

We’ve identified that human resource management must be a priority for farming into the future. Learning how to find and keep good employees is and will continue to be one of the biggest issues facing producers. Human resource training becomes invaluable as operations grow in complexity.

It’s much easier to bring in new hires when you can clearly describe your standard operating procedures. There is a wealth of human resource training available, including some specific to agriculture. If your hiring and firing process has been an informal process, it’s time for you and your successor to take it up a notch.

Real talk for the next generation

The next generation needs to pursue training to keep pace with a dynamic sector. Having an attitude that embraces new learning and training might be the essential trait for an up-and-coming farm manager.

Watch this video: Real talk for the next generation

Who needs training?

Eventually, the family will have to identify one or more successors.

What skills and knowledge does the successor bring to the table? How good is the senior generation at explaining, teaching and mentoring?

When you list everything you need to know to manage a farm now and into the future, the enormity of task can be paralyzing. A good first step is to talk about it. Sit down with the people involved and start a conversation.

Business is about people. Get better at communicating. Start talking and listening. Identify the various roles and responsibilities that need addressing. Identify who is going to fill which roles going forward through transition.

Are you a farmer CEO?

By nature, farmers aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They feel comfortable being independent, taking control and directing others to get a job done.

We think of a CEO as someone at the top of a large organization. You need a CEO when the company grows large enough that it’s impossible for one person to be at the centre of every project or decision. They must think big, point the ship in the right direction and motivate those around them.

A farmer CEO is both someone who knows the business at a granular level but can also stand back, motivate, lead and cast vision.

No matter where you are in the farm transition process, make it a training goal to understand and think like a CEO, regardless of how big or small your operation.

Read this article: Making the move from farm manager to CEO

Keep an open mind when considering roles

If your preconceived notion of a farm manager is that it will be a man, you’re seriously missing the boat. Women have always been and will continue to play an enormous role in agriculture. Tap into the potential that women bring to the table. Eliminate any existing biases around gender, age and background, to ensure you’re considering the best candidates possible. Tap into all the potential that exists within the team.

What needs to be learned?

When we talk about training and mentoring during the transition process, it covers a vast range of both formal and informal learning. Successful producers need excellent negotiation skills, marketing savvy, strong decision-making abilities, emotional maturity and more. Formal education, like an ag degree or diploma, provides a base. At some point, the next generation needs real-world experience to build the skill set that enables a successful transition.

You can’t be everything. You’re probably not going to go out and get a law degree, but you need to know enough about the issue at hand to communicate effectively with your lawyer and ask the right questions. Learning how to spot and hire the best possible candidates to work with is a big part of building effective relationships with the experts that bring their strengths to your operation.

Where to get training

Learning can be fun and taking time out of the day to day grind should not be viewed as a day off. It’s part of the job to keep learning, and getting out of your bubble can be a good thing.

Put some resources aside in the budget to attend winter meetings or jump on a plane for a big tradeshow. Have a list of objectives or things you want to find out before you go. Interact with exhibitors and fellow producers, talk to the speaker after a seminar or meeting or go to the summer plot tours.

If travelling isn’t an option, educate yourself at home. Websites such as Coursera, Udemy, and Skillshare offer a broad range of online courses that will teach you valuable skills at your own pace. Harvard University even offers a selection of free online courses that are available to anyone.

Look at the courses and training resources available through provincial extension, farm organizations and agricultural colleges and universities. But don’t limit yourself to ag training. As discussed, many of the skills required by farm managers and CEOs are the same as for other businesses. Look for opportunities and resources that help good businesspeople become great businesspeople. 

When to start training

Start today, and don’t stop.

The senior generation won’t be around forever, and we know they have a lifetime of knowledge. It will take time to hear and learn, and it’s not enough to work side-by-side and hope everything is absorbed by osmosis. Make deliberate efforts to share information.

The junior generation needs to get good at asking, “why?” at every opportunity. Don’t leave it up to the senior generation to teach – they’re not mind readers and need to hear your feedback. Many farmers have been making all the decisions for a long time without explaining it to anyone. It may take some effort on both sides before they become comfortable sharing what goes into the decisions. Curiosity is the soil in which knowledge grows.

Start a training journal. When you’re on the farm, carry around a small book in your shirt pocket or take notes on your phone. Write down questions as they come up before you forget. Assess yourself and jot down any areas where you feel you could use some training or mentorship.

If you have an off-farm job and can’t be around all the time, book regular times to talk with the senior generation. Talk to dad or mom before they leave the house in the morning and discuss the priorities for the day. Talk through the tasks and decisions that will be made. The learning happens by hearing.

Leaders are lifelong learners

“Because I think I am making progress.”

Pablo Casals, one of the most accomplished cellists of the 20th century, answering why, at the age of 95, he continued to practice six hours a day.

This attitude is relevant for the up-and-coming farmer and for the farmer nearing retirement. How will you adapt to a different lifestyle? If it’s travel, start learning travel skills. If it’s a hobby, investigate courses to get you rolling. Golf? It’s time for lessons.

How to find training

The good news is there are tons of training resources available for farmers of all types at all stages of their career. FCC Knowledge is packed with training articles. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council has agriculture-specific HR tools and Agri Skills, online and in-person training programs, and the Agri HR Toolkit, has an online resource guide and templates to address the HR needs of any business.

A peer advisory group is something that farmers at any stage can join or create. It’s a regular meeting of people in similar industries but who aren’t competitors. They share ideas, ask questions and help each other learn.

Training and learning can be done in so many ways – it’s up to the individual to find the best approach for them. Whether it’s as informal as weekly discussions about management with parents or an in-depth management course taken on-line from a university, the underlying drive to learn and improve is the important part.

Assess your skills and knowledge gaps. Be curious and ask questions. Find the experts and specialists to help you get to the required knowledge level for topics outside your wheelhouse. Make learning and training a cornerstone of your business plan.

Up next
Farm transition takes a team – here’s how to find the right fit

Learn how to build a team of advisors who can help your reach your transition goals and vision.