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Toban Dyck: Putting the hard questions on the table

Table talk topics at Farm Forum hit close to home for conference participants

One of my talents as an adolescent was being able to sleep until noon. It was, at the time, the only real talent I felt confident about. Fast forward to now. I’m 38 and I’m getting up at 6 a.m. to attend a table talk on succession planning at the Farm Forum event in Calgary. But here’s the kicker: not only is getting up at 6 no big deal, it’s also when I would have naturally woken up.

I stood there, coffee in hand, starring at coroplast board that listed all the concurrent table talks scheduled to start at 7. They all looked interesting. (Between you and me, I sometimes worry that the agronomic-related sessions are going to be over my head.) I chose, “The top mistakes that break up a family business,” with Jolene Brown.

I sauntered over to the table, put my notebook down and went to get a coffee refill. Jolene wasn’t there yet. There was only one other person at this particular talk.

Good, I thought. We can have an intimate conversation. We can really get into it. That is, after all, what table talks are all about.

That was not the case. I thought I had chosen a niche table talk and that all the other ones diving deep on agronomy would be much more full.

Brown’s talk filled the table, and part of two others. It was the place to be. It was a hot topic.

She took questions and talked specifically to them. Hands down — and we all know this — it’s communication that makes or breaks family operations. It’s being honest. It’s addressing things that, perhaps, have never before been addressed. It’s having difficult conversations. It’s all hard stuff. And that’s why doing these things well is enough to separate the successful from the unsuccessful.

“It’s not the acres or the yields that will keep you up at night,” said Brown. “It’s the people.”

Everyone around the table nodded, some with smiles; others with heavy looks that suggested they were in the trenches on this one.

Having that reiterated to me felt good and energizing. But it wasn’t the takeaway.

“If you love and honour your family, you’ve got to do your business right,” she said, more than once.

This resonated — not because I don’t feel as though I’m doing that, but because it highlights an additional responsibility those who are entering their family operations have towards not only maintaining them, but to make them better.

I will not typically agree with positions that heap additional mental pressure on farmers, but this one makes sense.

The farm, as I am able to experience it today, is not around because of me. It exists as a business that was attractive enough to draw me back because my parents and others down the line made it so.

The other takeaway from that talk was the popularity of that topic and format.

There’s an appetite among farmers for how to do the whole communications thing a little better, and whatever that is, whatever is driving that seems to be trumping other topics.

I’ve been to a few events with table talks over my almost three years at Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers. We’ve had them at some of our events, and I’ve seen them elsewhere, too. Generally, they consist of an expert on a topic sitting at a small table. In some cases, farmers are able to choose their starting table, then rotate through a bunch more. In my case at Farm Forum, everyone picked one table talk per morning.

Writing has to be interesting to be read. Movies have to be interesting to be watched. Presentations are no different. The smartest among us will tolerate more graphs than others. But, today more than ever, there’s stiff competition for our attention. We need to be smart about how we extend information. After all, if farmers are not listening, what’s the point? There’s too much good information and important research out there not to take the issue of properly extending it to farmers seriously.

Table talks have proven an effective way to do this. And a title such as Brown’s “The top mistakes that break up a family business” is something farmers want to talk about.

On Day 2, I sat at the precision agriculture table. It was great. There were only a handful of us and I was able to talk about technologies I could implement on my farm.

Brown’s comment about doing your family business right is still rattling around in my head. That, and zero-tillage and intercropping, all things well covered at Farm Forum. But, let’s save those juicy topics for another day.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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