I recently returned from TEPAP in Texas, a well-known program for agriculture executives to level up their knowledge. This was my first time attending and I took so many notes I have an entire spreadsheet of actionable items, new one-liners and future to-do’s. I’m getting older and if I don’t write it down, it doesn’t stick.

I can honestly say it was a humbling experience. I think I’m a hard worker and to learn that some of these producers are working 1,000 hours more than me per year was astonishing. And while that type of lifestyle is neither desirable or sustainable, you can see why these other producers have been incredibly successful. 

I had the privilege of being in a room with the best of the best – let me throw some stats your way:

  • 43 other producers (that is just level 1, other levels are running simultaneously)
  • Combined assets owned worth  $1.145 billion
  • Combined gross revenue  of $518 million/year
  • Combined total liabilities of $474 million 

And this is why we go. Because just when you think you’ve got the ag puzzle figured out, you realize you’re not actually as far ahead as you first thought. To see, hear and learn from other producers (most from the US) is, in my mind, the best professional development you can get. 

Here are some of my key takeaways:

Appointing a Safety Director

We currently don’t have a safety director and I think this is something a lot of farms are lacking right now. 

If you’ve never worked on a farm, it may surprise you to learn that we often have near misses. Here’s an example – we’ve got a guy on top of a fertilizer bin as it’s filling and the bin fill spout falls, almost knocking him off a 40-foot bin. I’ve seen it happen. We often shrug it off and say we just got lucky.

We never make the time to talk about it and learn from it. As our operation grows and our team grows, it’s becoming clear to me that we need to start giving it the due diligence it deserves. 

Another safety concern is cell phones and driving. We know this can lead to driver inattention and, potentially, accidents.  It got me thinking…we could get headsets for the crew, which might solve part of the problem. Yet we communicate on an app, called Voxer, all day long, so this will be a challenge. But, it’s something that’s now on my radar as a priority. Open to other thoughts from folks out there who may be struggling with the same issues. 

Does having an MBA make you a better farmer?

I’m pretty sure most of you out there might say no, but in today’s increasingly competitive and large operations, I think it’s something we should consider. After all, they’re managing multi-million dollar businesses. 

I had some great conversations with other producers who are sending (and paying for) team members to attend university to get their MBAs. Previously, this is something only the corporate world did. It’s refreshing to see that this is happening and I do think there is benefit to training guys on business fundamentals. While it might not improve the day-to-day dirt work, I think it can provide high-level strategic focus for team members who are keen to move into management positions.

Avoid Chauffeur Knowledge 

I love a good story and one of the speakers recounted this one: A medical doctor/professor and his chauffeur did a year-long roadshow of speaking engagements. The chauffeur sat in the back row and listened to every single presentation. Towards the end of their trip, the chauffeur says he’s pretty sure he knows enough to give the entire presentation. The chauffeur went up and recited the presentation, but couldn’t answer a single question from the audience. He was a deer in the headlights. Bottom line, lots of us have high-level knowledge but don’t fully understand the nitty-gritty details. We can’t just memorize things, we need to understand things. 

My takeaway here is that we can’t make decisions based on chauffeur knowledge – whether that’s on the farm or in life. There’s a never-ending supply of armchair quarterbacks, media pundits, ag commentators and even politicians who will spout out information without really understanding it. Don’t fall for it. A word to my team…I may be using this one often.  (wink emoji)

Job interviews go both ways 

In our tight labor market, this was a good reminder that as head of HR, it’s also my job to sell our company, the opportunity and the path to advancement. We get so focused on finding the candidate who checks all the boxes, and when we finally find them, we see that maybe they don’t want us. It is up to us to explain to potential hires why it’s a great place to work, the perks that come with the job, the lifestyle and, most importantly, that we have a plan in place for career advancement. When today’s young folks can go work for a tech, chemical or fertilizer company in the city, we’ve got our work cut out for us to make primary producer agriculture an attractive option. When it comes to the interview process, it’s a two-way street.

Keep an eye out for the “C” Student

When interviewing candidates, particularly summer students or new grads, marks don’t tell the whole story.  One of the speakers at the conference shared with us that it’s often the “C” student who may surprise us with their strong work ethic, leadership and great ideas. While “A” students are most likely to go on to academia and research, and B students are the worker bees who keep the economy going, the “C” student might just be the next entrepreneur or successor to your business. 

People’s feelings are (or can be) human collateral in getting things done

Does that sound harsh? Probably because it is, but it’s also true. There’s a great saying that goes along with this…three in a relationship is a crowd. Everyone wants to be involved in the decision-making process, but at the end of the day, we can’t rule by committee. I 100% agree in collaboration and soliciting team feedback, but we can’t have analysis paralysis. We need to make swift decisions on time-sensitive things or else we won’t get a crop in the ground. Sometimes, that can result in hurt feelings, and people need to realize you can’t take that personally. 

We can’t ignore geo-political issues 

We heard from an insightful geo-politicist at TEPAP who encouraged us to keep our eyes on China. As probably the single biggest importer of our canola, and with canola being the most profitable crop right now, losing China as a customer would be disastrous. China seems to be kicking sand at everybody right now, but we need to find ways to keep that international trading relationship strong and we need strong leadership from our federal government.  In Saskatchewan, we’ve made good progress on crushing almost half of our canola domestically, but we could see a drop in canola prices in a few years if trade relations break down. 

He also pointed out that China’s birth rate is decreasing, largely due to the one-child policy, and demand may not continue to be as strong as it once was. Bottom line – we can’t get caught putting all of our eggs in one basket. 

The “greenlash” is coming

I don’t have much interest in politics, but I do know how our industry is sometimes portrayed in the media and on social media, and it’s frustrating. So, for me, this was a hopeful sentiment expressed at the conference that I’m holding onto. Speakers pointed out that the environmental movement and current obsession with “sustainable” and “regenerative” farming will go through three phases – obsession, disillusionment and then enchantment. I think this is where we’re at right now…the disillusionment of things like the carbon tax, electric vehicles and fake meat. 

We all know we’ve got to do something about climate change and our farm is a leader in sustainable farming practices, but I think the dust is starting to settle. We’re really going to make progress over the next few years in determining what are the most sustainable technologies that are worth investing in and which ones are a fly-by-night trend based on the popularity of the green movement.

Farm succession

Now, here is one area where I can wholeheartedly say HGV ranked above most producers at TEPAP. I was surprised by how many older producers still have not had conversations with the second or even third generations about what succession on the farm will look like in the future. HGV has spent a great deal of time thinking about and creating the structure of how the operation will carry on, with joint owners that are outside the Hebert Family. One thing I’ll say is Kristjan and his father, Louis, have been very transparent about this and the team appreciates this. Many producers I spoke with are dreading these conversations with their younger generations and the longer they put it off, the more difficult it becomes. 

Know Your Numbers

I have the privilege of working with two experienced accountants so HGV is pretty clear when it comes to profit margins, borrowing, debt, land acquisition, forecasting, etc. Not every operation is like this. You can read many of our Farmer Coach blogs that outline the importance of this. As farmers, I’ll just say it, most of us are drawn to the machinery, being outdoors and living the rural lifestyle. After a few good years, we like to buy our “toys” (typically, the boat, cabin at the lake, new truck) and we’re not great at making sure we can weather the down cycles. The numbers aren’t sexy, but they are important. If you don’t feel you’re strong in this area and don’t have the means to keep someone in-house, there is always the option of hiring a fractional Chief Financial Officer (CFO), which is becoming increasingly common and worthwhile.

TEPAP was a great experience and I’ve started to realize that investing in one week of continual development per year is good for me, the business and my mindset. The sun and warmth of Texas in January doesn’t hurt either. 

-Jeff

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