BY TREVOR BACQUE • ILLUSTRATION BY TILL LUKAT
Farmers have long endured the stereotype of being stoic and aloof, completely self-reliant. Today, one of the hottest trends in agriculture is turning this notion on its head. The radical idea is … wait for it … talking. Within the confines of a peer group, hyper-focused conversations are underway across Canada as farmers zero in on operational improvement from top to bottom. And participation is not restricted by farm size nor income level. Similarly, the colour, cost and condition of one’s combine is irrelevant. It’s about mindset. Peer group participants are primarily interested in one thing only: better business.
Sara Chambers loves to talk with farmers and her job managing the peer group program at Backswath Management in Winnipeg, MB, allows her to do just that. She connects the right mix of people for conversations that touch on the most pressing issues in agriculture.
“I refer to it as mini advisory boards, that’s what peer groups are,” she said. “It’s really for them to be able to hear from other farmers, like how are they handling certain situations. Of course, you must be willing to share your own kind of knowledge and information as well.”
Given that topics primarily relate more to business practices than seeding rates, a new group must build a level of trust. Chambers works with 90-plus farmers in active peer groups across the Prairies and has observed members of the most successful groups are overtly transparent.
Once groups are assembled, sit-down sessions are run by a Backswath facilitator, but members dictate the direction and flow of meetings. These may feature a guest speaker or the group may tour an ag facility or member farm. Participants may also take part in a benchmarking exercise. “There’s not a preset curriculum, so our facilitators are truly there to facilitate the discussion,” said Chambers. “They’re not there to educate. They’re not there to do group consulting.”
A big impetus to sign up is accountability. “If you brought up an issue at a previous meeting, we’re going to ask you about it at the next one to see what you’ve done to try and solve the problem,” she said. “You’re going to be put in a group of people that might not think the same way as you and they’re going to challenge you. That person also expects to be challenged. Wanting to better themselves, that’s the commonality.”
These groups of men and women discuss their business activities with the kind of gravity today’s agriculture operations demand. “They have to be everything that a business owner in any other industry would be,” she said. Farmers increasingly need a strategic plan and HR policies and principles, even if they don’t have employees, she added. “The way they manage it has to be sophisticated if they want to be able to provide for future generations.”
Recognizing the need for greater supports for new entrants to the industry, Backswath introduced a peer group for emerging farmers in 2020. Participants improve their grounding in HR, finance and strategy as they prepare to one day take over or manage a farm.
And even though most come in looking to supercharge their business, they also find unexpected benefits, namely a support network. “Most people probably don’t join for that reason, but over time, they really begin to rely on it,” she said. “In our groups, we’ve seen some pretty sensitive things being discussed.”
Chambers highlights how all farmers benefit by sharing and analyzing their experience. She is adamant the ripple effects to develop oneself as a business owner and leader can help regain time lost from inefficiencies and positively affect your farm business.
HONEST, INFORMED OPINION
A self-described academic from Rivers, MB, Ron Krahn is a numbers guy, which is perhaps why this engineer-turned-farmer is a proponent of such groups that share business and financial ideas.
Ten years ago, he was asked to join a peer group created and facilitated by MNP. Eager to elevate his community banter to a higher level, Krahn accepted the invitation. Comprised of 10 farmers from well-spaced geographic areas of Manitoba, the group meets about six times annually. They discuss serious matters, but those concerned about leaks can refer to the members’ strict confidentiality agreement. “It’s really important I know what I share with a group is not going be talked about with friends of theirs,” said Krahn, 48.
He also appreciates the perspectives of fellow farmers. These peers innately understand the nature of farming. The informed advice and hard-won insight they offer is borne of their own experience. Because nobody competes with one another on land renting or buying, Krahn feels everyone wants the best for one another.
Though the cohort might cheer his choices, they may also let him know they would not take a similar action if the choice was theirs. Such honesty is huge for Krahn. “Sometimes it’s just confirming the decisions we made were good ones based on what we’re seeing elsewhere,” he said. “It’s an exchange of ideas with people who know you rather than just randomly on social media or the coffee shop.”
About one year after he joined, Krahn was pouring over spreadsheets in his office, trying to calculate whether he should upgrade his air drill and tack on sectional control. It felt right and the numbers looked accurate, but because he had completed his capital spending for the year, Krahn wanted certainty. He laid out the proposition to the group. They pressed him with a host of questions and challenged his math. By the end, the farmers around the table acknowledged it made sense and encouraged the buy. Krahn made the upgrade.
“I needed a push to say even though you had decided not to spend more, this makes sense because the numbers say so. And so, you should do it anyways,” he explained. “You get that unbiased take on a situation.”
Krahn admitted he has become much more relaxed sharing details about his operation than he would have expected when he first joined. He noted that with any personal or professional relationship it takes time to get comfortable. The vulnerability has paid off as he stuck with the group. What began as a collection of strangers has developed into strong bonds with a high degree of trust and respect.
“Whether you farm by yourself or with a group of partners, it’s easy to have blinders on or get groupthink because you’re making decisions with those people every day,” he said. “To be able to ask a group outside of your farm, but that still knows your farm well enough they can give you a good answer, it is just invaluable.
“The time spent at a peer group is some of the best farm management time I spend in a year. The time and effort put in, you get back in multiples. Every farmer should be part of a peer group.”
Krahn also participated in The Executive Program for Agriculture Producers (TEPAP), over the winters of 2020 and 2023. Although a more formal program, Krahn described it as similar to his regular group in that participants shared openly about their farm from a business perspective. It “had a significant impact” on how he looks at his farm, he said.
KEEP IT REAL
For different reasons, 29-year-old Steve Reimer enjoyed his peer group experience as much as Krahn. A first-generation farmer in the Carrot River, SK, area, Reimer works with his wife Jen and brother Dale. Keen to work in smart and efficient ways, he steadily absorbs the wisdom of friends, neighbours and, mostly recently, a peer group. In 2021, when a Farm Credit Canada (FCC) rep pitched him on the idea to link up with farmers in a formal setting, he remembers being excited and keen to hear more.
“I didn’t even really know what a peer group was,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, fill me in here, what are we talking about?’ When she started describing it, I was all on board with that. To me, it sounded really good.”
At their first meeting in November 2021, members talked about pertinent management topics with a professional facilitator present. There were six online sessions per season, and everyone was given a topic ahead of time to ponder prior to each meeting. This allowed them to contribute questions and discussion points. Each meeting opened with the latest developments at everyone’s farm. This was followed by open discussion. “Everybody got a chance [to speak],” said Reimer, appreciative of the facilitator. “That helps everything and everybody be on the same level.”
Reimer lives about three hours northeast of Saskatoon, SK, and was grateful sessions were held online. He said he would have found it difficult to attend them in person. “When you’re in your own office, you can make your own notes and everything’s right in front of you,” he said. “I do think there’s a time to leave the farm, but I really liked it. It was two hours I scheduled and set aside, and I’d be in my office knowing that I was going to be chatting with these people.”
Similar to Krahn’s group, Reimer found himself chatting with farmers outside his immediate area. Group members were spread across Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario. He rolled up his verbal sleeves and engaged in real talk. “You drive by a farm and the shop is nice, the lawn is mowed and the house is neat. It looks pretty good, but you don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors. That’s really where we were going with our peer group, is going behind those closed doors. In a way, it got me a chance to sit in on five different farm business meetings, and that helped me a lot with furthering my business principles for my own farm.”
Based directly on his conversations, Reimer made several operational adjustments in areas such as grain marketing strategy. He was surprised how invested he became over the course of two years. He initially believed the group would simply “throw some ideas on the table,” but they quickly offered much more for one another. “We were feeling invested in each other and in each other’s farms,” he said. “It felt like the group was buying in 100 per cent. That was a very good outcome.”
Reimer’s group ended a two-year stint in the spring of 2023. His experience was positive, and he is open to join another group should the opportunity arise. “I don’t have all the answers for my farm, and I need input. I need people’s ideas and usually the only way you’re going to get that is to ask and maybe be vulnerable about a problem,” he said.
Though Reimer believes his thoughts are not profound, he is grateful to have participated, adding the others helped him immensely, simply with open, honest words. “If you want some real numbers, you want people to kind of hold you accountable and you’re looking for real input from real farmers who have experienced the same things that you have, it’s a great thing.”
A MINIATURE MBA
Myles and Trena Fox always make room in their lives for the business end of farming. The Gravelbourg, SK, couple farm and raise their three children just south of town. “Right from the first business plan we wrote to wanting to find a mortgage on our first land, one of our key things was education and constant learning for our business,” said Trena. “A peer group has very much been a way for us to get that education through professional development opportunities and hearing about other people’s experience and lives.”
In 2011, four years after they began farming, they both enrolled in CTEAM, an agribusiness program within Agri-Food Management Excellence, a company that administers a variety of ag management courses.
The program focused heavily on executive level training for farmers and ranchers. The Foxes described it as a miniature MBA. By the time the couple wrapped up in 2013, they were eager to further share time with progressive farmers. Post-CTEAM, one of their presenters, Terry Betker, suggested Backswath Management, his Winnipeg-based inter-provincial consultancy that was about to launch peer groups.
A year later, the Foxes signed up with Backswath. The new group was just what they wanted. Their meetings are held twice each year over the course of two days. They begin with the reading of a group-specific charter that includes a confidentiality agreement and outlines the reasons the group was formed and the values its members hold to be true. “It took probably two years to get to know everybody in our group and get comfortable,” said Trena. In initial meetings, each farmer outlined the features and functions of their operation.
Group meeting constitute a facilitated exercise like others. Participants suggest discussion topics and guest speakers for future meetings. The Foxes, both 45, said discussion about HR, leadership and finance has helped them in their operation. Deep dives into the business operation of each farm and the raw and honest feedback that accompanied benefitted everyone present, Trena believes. “A lot of these people have become trusted mentors,” she added.
The group has given them practical advice they parlayed into real change at the farm. Contending with drought over the last few years, the Foxes were advised to look into various insurance options perhaps better suited to their dry conditions. “We got real good feedback from those farms, from their dos and don’ts,” said Myles. “It saved us a lot of lesson learning.”
The Foxes’ children, while still in grade school, have become increasingly interested in agriculture. Other families are at a similar life stage and while nothing formal has been arranged, family-to-family work exchanges are being discussed. This would allow the children to learn about farming from another trusted perspective.
“You get to know not only each other’s businesses really well but each other’s families,” said Trena. “There wasn’t an intention going into it, but definitely when you spend that many years with a group of people, relationships form.”
The couple encourages people to try a group on for size, but stress giving it an honest try. This means attending more than two meetings. Anyone banking on immediate “results” may need to adjust their expectations. The Foxes’ well-earned comfort has helped them supercharge their operation by tapping into the expertise of farmers who respectfully scrutinize their business to help them succeed. When the couple presented their latest strategic plan to the group in 2022, it was with the intention their peers would “shoot holes” in the plan as a gut check to see if they were being aggressive enough. “It really showed us that, OK, if we can get in with a group and do this and carry it forward, it’s just going to have that much greater an impact for our business,” said Trena. “The biggest growth comes from being with people who challenge you.”