If you treat your farm like a way of life, it can be a bad business—but if you treat your farm like a business, it can be a great way of life.
That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned on my family farm, and I’ve made it my mission to help farmers achieve the lives that they want by giving them the knowledge and tools that they need.
Farming in many places is better than ever, with big harvests and big opportunities. At the same time, it’s never been harder or more complicated. You can’t just put a crop in the ground and help it grow. You have to be the CEO, CFO, and the COO of an agricultural business—and the traditional ways of learning to farm just don’t cut it anymore.
That’s why a colleague and I started Farmer Coach, a new program for food producers to improve their finances, risk management, and knowledge transfer from one generation to the next.
We’re all attracted to careers in farming for different reasons. Many of us grew up on farms and took over what our parents and grandparents built. A lot of us are drawn to small towns, rural communities, and family life. For farmers, “Take Our Kids To Work Day” means letting our children ride with us in our combines—and we can do it whenever we like, rather than just one day per year at the corporate office.
That’s certainly my experience. I grow barley, canola, wheat, and more on my family farm in Moosomin, Saskatchewan. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Yet farming for me is a lot different from what it was for my forebears. My father knew this and he prepared me for it. As I was going off to college, we talked about what I would study. I assumed it would be agriculture, so that one day I could take over his operation. He warned me away from this and gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received: “I can teach you how to grow a crop,” he said. “Learn about business.”
My dad was already teaching me how to raise a crop, and he kept on doing it in the way that farming fathers and farming sons or daughters have done for generations.
Meanwhile, I took business courses and became an accountant. I gained the skills to create and read financial statements. I learned about managing people, delegating authority, and working with loan officers in an era when taking your scribbled calculations on a napkin from the town diner to the local banker is no longer enough.
This background has proven essential to our family farm. It’s getting more difficult to run a profitable farm, especially at a time of soaring input prices, severe weather, and a war in Ukraine that has imperiled food security everywhere.
The more I’ve gotten to know other farmers and the challenges they face, the more convinced I’ve become that we need a new way to train food producers for careers in what has become a rapidly changing profession full of sophisticated technology, market volatility, and long-term planning. Our line of work requires hard-headed thinking about machinery, capital, negotiation, expansion, and succession.
You grow one crop a year, but each day is full of decisions with lots of dollar signs and zeroes attached. You cannot afford mistakes.
That’s where Farmer Coach comes in. The central idea is that we’re starting a relationship based on accountability and networking. Instead of coming to a seminar for a day or two and hearing us prattle about what’s on our minds, we present ideas, collaborate on specific problems and solutions, and check in on your progress after you return to your farms and apply what you’ve learned. We also connect you with other farmers who can provide advice and support and help your business grow.
Right now, most of the participants in Farmer Coach are Canadian, but the challenges we address are hardly unique to Canada. About a quarter of our participants are from the United States, and we have a lot to learn from each other.
One thing we all can agree on is that today’s farmers need more help—and Farmer Coach is here to offer it.
Kristjan farms 28,000 acres in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan, Canada, growing malt barley, hard red spring wheat, canola, fall rye, yellow peas and oats. He returned from university in 2008, determined to grow the family farm from the 2,000 acres that it was as he was growing up.
Kristjan used his interests in finance (heâ€™s a CPA) and people to make the business decisions and assemble the team needed to grow. The farm forward contracts its crops and adjusts the crop rotation to some degree according to the sales contracts that can be accessed.
The farm uses no-till on most of its acres, with minimum tillage on the rest. Technologies include variable rate fertilization and a 6-9 year nutrient management plan that includes numerous ways to apply fertilizer. This offers some risk management in years like this one when fertilizer prices are high.
Kristjan is working in collaboration with his brother who raises livestock, to produce silage for the cattle, then grow a cover crop thatâ€™s available for grazing, in turn adding manure fertilizer to the land. From an environmental viewpoint, he thinks itâ€™s important to get farmers and livestock producers working together.