During the winter conference season I had several conversations with farmers over coffee and lunches. One farm couple brought me into their discussion around who should be marketing grain on their farm: the “farmer” husband or the “bookkeeping” wife?
This couple has been married and farming for 15 plus years, with a couple of kids. They operate a mixed farm with about 2,200 acres and 100 cows. Both work full time on the farm.
My initial thought was that whatever I said, I would be the bad guy. This conversation had been going on for a while, and it looked like they were asking me to be the judge. After 35 years of marriage I am smart enough to know that this is not a position I wanted to be in!
I avoided answering the question directly by bouncing questions back at them.
First, I asked if they knew their total costs of production on their farm. They both answered yes.
I asked if they knew their costs for each crop. He said he could come up with those numbers fairly quickly and proceeded to pull out his trusty pocket book with all of his information from seeding, fertilizing, spraying and harvesting, field by field, for the past two years.
His wife replied, “I can tell you what our costs were last year because I have that in the computer. But I don’t have an update for this year because ‘he,’” she pointed at her husband, “hasn’t finished deciphering his note book and given me the numbers.”
I wasn’t sure I should go any further, but since that accusation of tardiness seemed to pass right by him, I figured it was safe to ask more questions.
So I asked, “Have you done any analysis to see what you need for a yield or price to break even?”
He said he had a pretty good idea, but he’d never sat down to pencil it out. She that she’d reviewed last year’s numbers, but she hadn’t thought about doing it for the coming year.
We talked about how knowing break-even numbers can help you to stay focused when it comes to marketing.
Next I threw in an easy question. “Who pays the bills and knows when the payments are due?” They both answered that he has some idea when payments are due, but no clue as to when the bills are due. She was in charge of that.
Next question: “How and where do you gather grain market information?” He told me he listens to price broadcasts on the radio, gets pricing texts from a couple of local grain buyers, accesses pricing information on the Alberta Ag and Alberta Wheat Commission websites and goes to seminars. She said she listens to price broadcasts and attends seminars, but other than that she leaves it up to him — for now.
I asked him what time of the day he usually did his research. He said noon, when the broadcast is on the radio, or whenever he gets a text. He said he checked information on the computer at night.
I asked to see his cell phone. He pulled out the classic Samsung flip phone, as I’d suspected from the bulge in his shirt pocket. She had a Samsung Galaxy smartphone. He said he didn’t like all of the gadgets and buzzing and beeping. She just rolled her eyes.
After having grilled them both for about 10 minutes I felt bold enough to step forward with suggestions.
My two cents
On a family farm there are so many chores and jobs to be done daily that important jobs like following the markets often get left to “when I have time.” Texts and radio broadcasts are fine but, if you aren’t looking at the information until after the markets and the elevators close, you’re losing the opportunity to react to changing conditions. Yesterday’s prices may be gone by morning.
To be more responsive, you need to follow prices constantly. The best way is by fax and email. He should upgrade his phone; she should sign up to receive the same texts and emails he gets.
Next, I suggested they sit down and together enter the information from his pocket book into the computer. Then they could analyze the numbers and start putting together a marketing plan.
I suggested they make joint marketing decisions by talking about when they need to sell and at what price to meet their cash-flow needs. If he’s busy in the field, with two of them watching the markets, they won’t miss opportunities. If she really starts to enjoy marketing, he can focus on production, knowing their marketing plan is in good hands.
He figured this sounded like a good plan, so he was willing to sit down with his book and reveal its many secrets.
I wished them good luck and as they left she said, “thank you, he needs to hear it from someone other than me.”
Getting a third opinion is not a bad thing, but on a family farm don’t forget that the person with the second opinion is just as invested in this business as you are!