You must take courage, farmers

Courage, and discipline, are job requirements for farmers in these risky times

When you’re a pedigreed seed grower, changes of plans can also mean extra, itchy combine clean ups.

This summer the world watched as “Brexit,” the United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union, unfolded. While the chattering class pondered what this meant for the British people and the European vision, a name familiar to Canadians was helping to steer the world’s fifth largest economy through tumultuous times.

It isn’t the first time that seismic global events have been foisted upon Mark Carney. As the governor of the Bank of Canada from 2008 to 2013, he played a central — and many say successful — role in guiding the Canadian economy through the 2008 financial crisis. In a July 27, 2016 article in the Financial Post, Carney’s former deputy governor, Tiff Macklem, described Carney’s leadership style as such:

“[H]e has the courage to manage risks proactively when some would prefer to simply hope the situation improves.” This quote really stuck out to me and I’ve taken it with me as I looked at my own farm business decisions the last few months. I love the word courage because having courage doesn’t mean we aren’t a little scared and overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation we face, it just means that we continue to make choices and act even when things are intimidating.

In some ways, having the “courage to manage risks proactively” is basically the thesis of many of the presenters I have heard at ag conferences over the past few winters. It takes courage to manage risks like herbicide resistance and disease prevalence in our crops. How long will we keep using ever-increasing rates of straight glyphosate to kill weeds rather than look at alternative chemical and cultural controls?

It takes courage to look at our farm books and manage our pricing strategies accordingly. Are we only concerned with having a higher price than our neighbours or hitting the top of the market? Price risk is real, but so is delivery risk, storage risk, and cash flow risk.

Are we managing our labour risk proactively? Are we listening to the unspoken messages our employees (including family members) are sending and dealing with them head on? Sometimes these messages come in an off-handed comment he or she makes; maybe your main trucker mentions that his wife is upset at him because he’s been away so much lately. Maybe he tells you he’s happy for the hours, but in the end the wife is probably going to win, so if you don’t manage his time commitment, you may lose him. Maybe it’s just an unspoken sluggishness and under-performance from the norm and people just need a break. Are we keeping an eye out for potential new recruits to our farm companies?

Are we managing our operations risks? This is an area where most farmers excel because they have spent years fine-tuning their farming system. However, cropping years like the one we had in 2016 can put strain on even the most finely tuned machines and it comes down to making the precise decision at the right time. Decision making takes courage, because sometimes it means doing something uncomfortable or doing extra work. As I mentioned in a previous column, we share a sprayer and I don’t think I have ever done as many clean outs on it as I have this year as my partner and I raced against weather conditions and crops that were staged closely in order to spray as many acres as possible while still prioritising crop safety and herbicide efficacy.

Harvest 2016 was a soggy one and there were many day-to-day changes of plans as we tried to prioritize getting the most valuable or vulnerable crops off the field the quickest. When you’re a pedigreed seed grower, changes of plans can also mean extra, itchy combine clean ups. Although we typically try to harvest all of a variety at once in order to minimize these clean ups, this year’s bad weather forced us to swallow the pill and pull out the air compressor a few extra times in order to do the best job possible.

Sometimes managing operational challenges proactively means knowing when to hire custom operators to relieve the pressure. If they can do what they do best and fast, it frees you up to do what you do best.

There are so many other kinds of risk that need to be managed with courage on the farm. Landlord risk: do you have written agreements, and more importantly, do you know if your landlords are happy? Have you heard them out on any complaints and addressed them as best as you possibly can?

I won’t even go into financial risks, as that is well above my pay grade. Needless to say, low interest rates have made an environment of farm expansion possible, but what happens if interest rates go up or land values go sideways or start to creep down.

I think there’s also probably such a thing as over-managing risk: being too worried about risks that you plow resources of time, money and manpower into averting potential problems, rather than using some of those resources to seek out and take on some risk in order to gain a reward. If it doesn’t take a little courage to do face the tasks in front of you, maybe it is time to push yourself a little.

In the end, I think having the courage to manage risks proactively is another way of saying: discipline matters. If you’re disciplined, you can better evaluate which risks are worth taking on and which ones to avoid based on your skills and available liquidity. There will be failures in business, but if you’ve led a fairly disciplined life, you will have good systems to catch you when you have an inevitable stumble.

Being disciplined is not sexy. Neither is cleaning a combine from header to spreader. Both, however, are requirements of the job.

About the author


Sarah Hoffmann

Sarah Hoffman, formerly Sarah Weigum, grows pedigreed seed and writes at Three Hills, Alta. Follow her on Twitter: @sweigum.

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