Grow anything to beat the band, but do farmers know how to market?

Life can often seem like a random set of events and challenges that are completely out of our control. However when they are put together after the fact, they all seem to have had a reason/purpose, guiding us on our journey — or so Erika would say when things don’t go my way. Recently I was on a marketing trip for our beef in B. C. and I got hung up by fog at the Powell River airport. After nine hours of sitting and waiting for a plane that never came I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it to Vancouver till the next day. However, as luck or fate would have it I managed to hitch a ride with the local dentist who also had to make a last ditch change in travel plans. Suddenly a random set of events seemed to make sense; the fog, the marketing trip, Powell River and flight delays. Had these events not happened I would never have had the chance for a five hour conversation with a remarkable individual that gave me a complete new perspective on what and how I do things.

There are people in life that take energy to be around and there are those that give it. Dr. Varma was one of those individuals that topped up your tank, the type you need after you have been sucked dry. I am a pretty avid reader, not in the sense of novels but rather a reader of philosophy, history and science. I love to read things that give me a better understanding about the world we inhabit and what makes things tick. As it turned out he too was an avid reader and he pointed me in the direction of a book that was a must read, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

An “Outlier” is defined as something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body. Human examples of outliers can include great sports stars, entrepreneurs, explorers, famous scientists, writers etc., in terms of nature they may be represented by plants and animals that grow beyond the norm for the given species.

Many believe that outliers are freaks of nature; individuals and populations that are born at random inherently/genetically gifted in their future field of expertise. Gladwell argues that this is not necessarily the case and that outliers don’t just happen, they are created by the circumstances and environments that shape the individual.

The first example Gladwell gives is about trees. “The tallest oak in the forest is not the tallest just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured”.

It’s difficult to condense a 300 page book into one article but I will try and give a perspective of how this fits in with agriculture. Many would guess genes play part of the equation of every outlier, and yes they do have an impact, however just like the oak, should the environment not be conducive to growth you will not get a big tree.

Timing is everything, and so to it is for creating outliers. When we are born, can in fact play just as much impact as into what social class we are born. We all know most people have peaks for learning, risk taking and energy. When these elements are combined with socio impacts like a recession or economic boom it can result in two completely different outcomes for the individual. In fact, these factors then set the path for life. So this brought me to thinking.

The average age of farmers and ranchers in Canada is now well over 58. This means that most were in their mid 20s during the 1970s when farming was really booming and of course many would have had their fingers slapped quite hard being in their 30s during the high interest rate period of the last recession. This created risk aversion. It was also a time that if you were a good producer you tended to make good money; mind you it was also a time of a low-valued dollar. Either way the association of hard work and production being rewarded with reasonable returns developed. This mindset has become engrained in our agriculture culture. Worse yet the myth continues to be kept alive by everybody from government to agribusinesses to research associations to universities and producer groups — either directly or indirectly — keeping the focus on production rather than marketing as a way out of a viscous circle. Remember lunacy is the act of repeating a process and expecting different results.

The future of farming is not about production, it’s about marketing and climbing up the value chain. Although many of us know this, why is it so difficult to change the direction. It’s because of production paralysis!

Gladwell argues that to become great at a skill an individual needs 10,000 hours of practice. Many may believe that individuals like the Bill Gates, Albert Einsteins and Wayne Gretzkeys of this world were born with an inherent ability in their fields of expertise. It is true they were born with certain genes, however that is only one small part. Yes the moons were in part lined up correctly, but more importantly all of these individuals spent thousands of hours honing their skills before they could do them in their sleep. Practice makes perfect.

Our industry is made of production experts, because of the thousands of hours they have spent perfecting it. Without batting an eye most farmers can figure out how to increase rates of gain, milk production or crop yields, however when it comes to marketing and increasing the value of their products, their ideas stall out like a truck with no gas.

After reading this book and meeting the good dentist I realized more than ever that teaching an old dog a new trick is an impossible task. What our ag industry needs is to teach the new dogs the new tricks and to set up the environment for this to happen, only then will we see an end to production paralysis and the start of marketing in motion.

Dr. Christoph E. Weder is a purebred Angus breeder in the Peace region of Alberta and also runs SVR Ranch Consulting. He is founding member of Prairie Heritage Beef Producers For additional info check out www.spiritviewranch.com

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