THE BUSINESS OF FARMING
sitting in a lecture room at the Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre in London, Ontario, 37 farmers from across the country are talking about the opportunities and challenges of running their operations today. They’re discussing land values, labour shortages, and public perception about the agricultural industry. They debate about feeding the world and sustainable production, profitability on an open market, and the pros and cons of low interest rates.
PHOTO: MARY BUYS PAID PARTICULAR ATTENTION TO THE FINANCIAL SESSIONS AT GROWER UNIVERSITY
This is Grower University, Syngenta Canada’s program that helps farmers develop their business and human resources skills. It’s the tenth year the program has been run at the Ivey School of Business.
As a list grows on the dry erase board at the front of the room, one farmer notes there are more challenges than opportunities written down, and wonders if this means farmers are developing a pessimistic view of their industry. But Mary Buys, a farmer from Thorndale, Ontario points out, “just because it’s a challenge, doesn’t mean it’s a negative.”
It’s that kind of outlook that brought Buys to Grower University. Local Syngenta representatives invite farmers to attend the intensive four day course which includes sessions on creating value, financial statements, investment decisions, leveraging financials, and managing people. According to Kris Savage, Syngenta’s Learning and Development Manager, it’s about bringing value beyond their products and technology. That’s why they target farmers that want to know more than just cropping information. “To be their best, farmers need other skill sets in order to grow their business. We’re providing the knowledge and access to professors to help them do that,” Savage says.
Buys was particularly interested in the financial sessions. “I already knew about income and balance sheets, but I wanted to know more about what you can do with the information. I could really relate to the session about sustainable growth because we just bought a second farm two years ago.”
Buys and her husband, Tom, took over his parents’ farm 22 years ago. They now grow corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,000 acres of owned and rented land where they also have sow and laying hen operations. Their second farm is also a combination of owned and rented land in Burford where they grow potatoes as well as grains.
“When we go to plan anything else, I now have a better idea how to crunch the numbers first,” says Buys, who explains they expanded because they want to ensure that all four of their children have the option to farm if they want to. Grower University helped her reconnect with the skills she had learned at the University of Guelph as a crop science major with a minor in business.
“I’ve had time to forget some of the math,” she jokes, but adds on a more serious note that lately, “I’ve been so busy with the day-to-day farm work and family commitments that I’ve put off the book work and relied more on the accountant. But now, I’m going to have the accountant print off a report more often so I can do an analysis quarterly.”
Buys was also intrigued by the session on managing human resources. “I had been thinking for a while that we need to improve communication with our employees, I now have ideas about how we can make this happen. We have a good staff right now, and we want to be able to hold onto our employees.”
Ten years ago, Steve Twynstra was struggling with some of the same business challenges when he was invited to attend the very first Grower University session. Additionally, he was dealing with low margins, depressed pricing, and several years of poor production. The Syngenta program provided Twynstra with an important opportunity to connect with other farmers.
“There was a lot of financial stress and emotional stress amongst cash croppers in Ontario and a lot of the same things were happening for western farmers. So just realizing we weren’t alone here in Ontario was a big benefit,” he says.
Twynstra now sees Grower University as a means to connect with business school educators and get them to realize that business isn’t all about manufacturing and big corporations. During one financial session that first year, Twynstra couldn’t relate to a case study involving the net present value of widgets. He wanted an example which reflected something he and other farmers had practical experience with. This led to the creation of a case study about Twynstra and his need to buy a new combine that is still being used in the course today.
“Many farmers can relate to buying a combine and most have probably sat down and tried to do an analysis on it and crunch the numbers through, so this is something that makes it more personal; it’s not just an exercise, it’s something they can take home and become a better manager in the process,” says Twynstra, who welcomes every Grower University class to his Twilight Acre Farms each year.
Twynstra has also participated in Grower University II, Syngenta’s next level course that all past participants are invited to attend. During this program, growers are asked to look more strategically at their operation and asked to consider what the long term vision is for their farm. The class sessions focus on the skills that are needed to create a plan that will allow them to reach that vision; this includes long term financial forecasting and team leadership skills. Grower University II has been offered for the past four years.
“By investing in these programs, it shows that Syngenta has a tremendous leadership team that sees their end users as more than just a cheque book or an account to sell product to,” says Twynstra. “They see it as a partnership; and if they can make that person a better partner then it goes both ways.”
Buys hopes to implement the skills she’s learned over the next few months, and hopes to see good results by the time she gets to attend Grower University II. Reflecting back on the discussion about the challenges she and other farmers are now facing, Buys says, “the sky is the limit if you are determined but realistic. If no one is challenged it would be boring and we wouldn’t improve.” Grower University has now given her a few more tools to meet those challenges. •