Farmer Coach – A backwards perspective on what I have learned over the past year.

From the moment I started working with Kristjan, it has been about predicting the unpredictable. I often joke about never knowing “what I want to be when I grow up”. The sheer number of opportunities and possibilities that present themselves in a year can be overwhelming at times. 


Adapting to change is a skill and not one that I possessed a decade ago. That is why this blog is written from the perspective of what I have learned by looking back. In the end, as the saying goes, “the teacher will only appear when the student is ready”.


Joining Strategic Coach in 2019 was a prerequisite to being a part of the Hebert Group. It was meant to get the “Kool-Aid” out of my system. Nothing against public practice, but when you play in the black and white it makes it much harder to live in the grey. Today, I live most of my life both professionally and personally in the grey. This is the joy of being an entrepreneur – my rules.


The Farmer Coach program was not meant to be an education program or peer group; it was meant to be about coaching and mentoring. This meant allowing the individual farms to tell me what success looks like and then I work to help them figure out the journey. I get to sit behind the bench and watch as farmers make improvements to their lives. This is considerably more fulfilling to me than being the captain of the team, I would way rather watch from the stands.


This is why what I have learned in the past year is so important; there are many roads to success, and I want to learn about each one of them.


Success is Measured in Different Ways


It is not a secret that I love working with highly progressive and growth-oriented operations. That being said, what is the definition of growth? It took all of five minutes to learn that for many operations growth is measured in personal assets, like family and health. The stories of why the producers do what they do, and how they got to where they are, were more inspiring than the number of acres or size of the bank accounts. 


One of the largest successes I witnessed over the last year was the number of Farmer Coach participants who have minimized or removed alcohol from their daily lives. I was amazed at their new clarity of mind and good health and this wasn’t anything that I expected before the program started, but an interesting statistic nonetheless.


From a family standpoint, have you ever told your significant other what “your” ten-year plan was? I had a father and son attend the program that built a picture of what they each wanted over the next decade. It wasn’t until the next session that they shared how it had grown into a family meeting with such clarity that a few tears had been shed. Something that many of us assume, myself included, is assuming that our loved ones can read our minds. I have had enough fights at home to confirm, they cannot.


I am writing this blog as I fly home from my executive coaching session. In my situation, I have trouble taking “free days” which is essentially saying I cannot unplug from business to enjoy the little things. This was another theme which is not surprising as all farmers are essentially entrepreneurs. We often cannot take time away from the farm to recover and regenerate. Whether the individuals had farm teams or not, the majority planned to start taking days away from the farm and all of them followed through. As I have heard said before, you cannot have success without having someone to spend it with.


Human Resources Would be Easy If Not for the People


I have heard our COO at Hebert Group say this jokingly many times. To be honest, human resources is not a skill set that I can say I am strong at. This may be more geared towards the saying “do as I say, and not as I do”. In agriculture, the labour problem is much worse than all other industries. For operations this size in any other skill set, you would have human resource managers running the show. But again, we are the janitor, CEO, and now the people person. Good luck.


It was identified very early in the program this time that human resources would be a topic of choice. The amazing thing to come out of it was that it was also an area where follow-through would be high. I can honestly identify that over half the first cohorts have gone out and either hired, or promoted from within, individuals who are going to be the next leaders. They have bought into the fact that people are an investment, not a cost, and by doing so have taken the first step towards honouring personal time and family. We are not paid by the hour as farmers, we are paid by the result. Sometimes this is forgotten after thirty straight days in a combine.


Farmers are Creatures of Habit


From the outside looking in, I love farming due to the volatility. I like change and new circumstances and the ability to adapt is what interests me. On the flip side, this is also the reason that agriculture has a mental health crisis. The numbers are large, and the risk is big. The one thing that stuck out to me about year one of Farmer Coach was the change in mindset over a simple twelve-month period.


I always find it interesting when Real Agriculture puts out its producer surveys. Each quarter we get a small sample of what producers in many areas are thinking. The part I always watch is the financial position questions as within twelve months a farm can go from strong to weak just based on a drop in grain price. 


How can a business go from a strong financial position to a weak position on a price change, and only over one year? This is the mindset of agriculture; we go from one end of the spectrum to the other at the drop of a hat.


In July, we were talking about capital plans, land, and even a little tax. By November, we were back to cost-cutting, risk mitigation, and drought. This is the one area that as a coach I need to work on to figure out how to mitigate. As farmers, we get 40 crops or so in a lifetime, we need to focus on the 5 best to make or break us, and the other 35 are rotation years (much like wheat many years is a rotation crop). It’s a hard lesson to teach when you never know when those 5 are coming.


In the end, I think the best moment for me was talking to one of the participants who started year two this November. He pulled me aside and commented that he couldn’t get over the change in almost everybody from the start to today. Whether it was hiring people, focusing on strategy, or just the type of conversations that they were having, it was “different”. They were now driving the bus; I was just keeping them between the ditches.