Two Alberta farmers share what they learned at Syngenta’s Grower University

This year marked the sixth annual session of Grower University — a Syngenta program developed in partnership with the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario. The program’s purpose is to teach participating producers how to build their business skill sets along with enhancing their farm management effectiveness. While the course is by invitation-only, participants are encouraged to share their newfound knowledge with other producers. The following five tips are some of the key lessons learned by two participants of this year’s course: Craig Lindholm from New Norway, Alta., and Steve Vandervalk from Fort Macleod, Alta.

1. KNOW YOUR FINANCIALS

“You need to have a good, realistic view of where the farm is at,” says Steve. “For example, you need to know your debt — how much debt you have, and whether or not you should take on more debt. It’s important to have a solid understanding of those key financial ratios.”

Craig adds that “as growers, we sometimes rely a little too much on our bankers or accountants. The financial component of the Grower U course emphasized that you need to know what return on investment you’re getting, what your cash flow is like throughout the year, and what potential shortfalls you may be facing. Being well-informed on these matters will help you make the best financial decisions for your farm.”

2. IDENTIFY NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Grower U helps participants learn how to recognize new business opportunities and develop the skills to analyze them effectively. “We were taught to start by considering how we can set ourselves apart from the competition, and to explore how we could expand our operations to tap into other lucrative markets,” Craig says.

The lesson in seizing opportunity was tempered by the importance of assessing long-term financial impact. “When considering a new expenditure or possible initiative, consider the long-term gain versus the immediate output of cost or short-term savings,” Steve says. “Weigh the money you will invest now with the money you will save in the life of the project, taking into account inflation and interest. Do the math to figure out what will save you the most money long-term.”

3.UNDERSTAND THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH

As a producer, you often have to work with different types of people: employees, business partners, family members, sales people and more. Grower U teaches a process of understanding different personality types and helping participants learn how to approach and work with each person. Without knowing the formal process, this is a lesson anyone can benefit from.

“One major issue for many growers is how to get and keep good employees. In Alberta and Saskatchewan we have a lot of competition for labourers with the oil-field and we simply can’t compete on price,” Craig says. “Grower U taught me to focus on the individual needs of each employee. Keep in mind the rewards that matter most to them may not be financial. Find ways of supporting their ideal lifestyle and work-related goals and make them feel like a part of the business and you will have better luck keeping your best people.”

This approach can also help things run smoother among business partners. “Personality tests can help you understand your own personality and those of your partners. Once you have this understanding, you can adjust your attitude and approach to your partners’ so that you work together better,” explains Steve.

4.NETWORK AND SHARE

IDEAS

Grower U gives participants an opportunity to meet other growers from across the country and exchange ideas. “As growers, we sometimes tend to get comfortable in our own routines,” Steve says. “But talking to other growers and learning about their projects and plans can ignite your ambition and give you new ideas and a fresh perspective on your business.” Adds Craig, “It was beneficial to share ideas with a mix of people, ranging from young people in their 20s just getting into the business to older people who are thinking about succession planning. We all got something different out of our conversations.”

At the same time, however, Steve learned about the importance of thinking strategically when it comes to developing new relationships. “Consider how many new business relationships you can effectively handle,” he says. “You need to be able to come through on your commitments and devote time to developing those relationships and any business opportunities you may be considering.”

5.CREATE AN ACTION PLAN

Each participant of Grower U develops an action plan for a specific project they are considering. Then they have an opportunity to review their plan with fellow students. Through this exercise, participants learned the importance of developing an action plan and inviting feedback on it. Says Steve, “If you have people in your network you can trust, it can be helpful to share your ideas with them. Request that they ask you questions that challenge your assumptions and help you gain a new perspective on your action plan. This will help you consider all the possible pros and cons and put together a smart, workable plan that you can actually implement.”

Based on his experience at Grower U, Craig suggests you consider several questions once your draft plan is put together. How can you improve your current business? How can you better involve your employees and business partners? How achievable are your ideas? How can you scale big ideas into manageable goals? And what steps can you take to develop the capabilities to be successful in your project?

These tips from Craig and Steve are just a few of the lessons Grower U participants took home with them. The most important lesson of all? Be open to new learning opportunities — whether it’s a book, a course, or just a fresh perspective that comes from a shared discussion over a cup of coffee.

Holly Nicoll is a customer manager, Western Canada, for Syngenta Crop Protection Canada, Inc. She is also the Syngenta liaison with the Richard Ivey School of Business for the Syngenta Grower University Program.

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