You need to up your game on managing people, say producers

Top-down management doesn’t cut it anymore, but fewer than one in five farms have a human resources plan

Five years ago, Kevin Serfas tried to manage human resources on his farm. It was a “train wreck.”

Workers were walking away from the job. The people who stayed weren’t happy. And Serfas found himself on Facebook, “begging people to come run a tractor.”

Finally, he went to one of his remaining workers and said something that would change his farming operation: “I’m no good at this.”

“You’re a farmer, but you’re not only managing the crops that you grow or the agronomy or the marketing,” the Turin-area farmer said at FarmTech last month. “You’re also a manager of people. I don’t think there are many people in ag who went to school to work in human resources. You just don’t think of things like that.”

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That’s true on most Canadian farms.

Only 18 per cent of farmers have a formal human resources plan — making it the weakest area of business management on their farm, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Agri-Food Management Institute and Farm Management Canada.

“When it comes to the everyday things on the farm — production decisions, agronomy decisions — we’re fairly good,” said Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada.

“But when it comes to business and human resource planning, taking time to assess, and using outside help, we could use some improvement.”

The survey identified seven business practices that separate the most profitable 25 per cent of farmers from the bottom 25 per cent. The seven were lifelong learning; making business decisions based on accurate financial reports; working with professional farm business advisers; using formal business planning; knowing your cost of production; assessing and managing risks; and having a solid financial plan.

“This is your recipe for success. These are things that the top performers are doing that the bottom farmers aren’t doing,” Watson told FarmTech attendees.

“It’s the difference between $10,000 return on assets and $100,000 return on assets.”

While HR management didn’t make the top seven, it should, said both Serfas and the other farmer on the FarmTech panel.

Sterling Hilton.
photo: Supplied

“I’m no good at HR either. It just wasn’t a skill passed down from the old man. But it is becoming more and more important,” said Sterling Hilton, who farms with his family near Strathmore.

“Your most valuable asset isn’t the combine you have in the shed. It’s the people you have working with you.”

Times have changed

Some of this shift toward worker-focused farming is being spurred by the up-and-coming generation, said Hilton.

“What I see on the farm today is an opportunity in agriculture that’s unprecedented — the amount of young people who are coming back to the farm with post-secondary education,” he said. “That’s a huge opportunity.”

Increasingly, these young people have training in things such as human resources, finance, and business management.

“It’s so important to recognize the skill set that you have around your farm management table and put the right people in the right seats,” said Hilton. “That’s what is going to accelerate your business to the next level.”

It was a different story 20 years ago when Serfas was graduating from high school. His family was then farming 2,000 acres and had two employees. Going to college wasn’t part of the game plan.

“Human resources was the furthest thing from my mind,” he said. “You paid a guy $7 an hour to do the work, and at the end of the day, he went home.

“A lot has changed in 20 years, and we’ve had to change and adapt as we’ve gone along.”

Today, Serfas farms around 56,000 acres and has a mix of around 40 seasonal, part-time, and full-time employees for his grain operation and 6,000-head feedlot. And he still wishes he had gone to college.

“Unless you go back to school, it’s tough to find a lot of the skills that you need to succeed in this modern era of farming,” he said. “A lot of what I did was learning on the go.”

And one of the biggest things he learned is that you have to accept “there are certain things you’re good at and certain things you’re not good at.”

A big part of that is trusting your workers, added Hilton. And quite often, that’s the hardest part of human resource management.

“It used to be top-down management, but moving forward, it’s going to be a more collaborative approach — trying to get ideas from everyone to move forward in a positive direction,” he said.

“If you’re not going to give people some autonomy over what they do, good luck keeping them around.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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