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New farm management group increases skills

A new type of farm group is pioneering a format for raising the level of farm management.


November 27, 2007
By Helen McMenamin

Members of the Palliser Agricultural Management Society (PAMS) are working
together to share the benefits of diverse experiences and ideas without each
one having to make their own mistakes. It is a new type of group for Canada.
It was formed partly in response to provincial government withdrawal from extension
and is partly modelled on a system in Brazil, where farm consultants work with
groups of farmers. There, each group functions like a board of directors as
they visit members' farms, critiquing the management.

 26a
Bryan Noble and Rod Lanier and a colleague compare notes at a conference.

After three years in operation, PAMS is still evolving to meet the needs of
the members, but it works within a framework developed before they formalized
the group. The group set out guidelines before they decided on activities because
they felt the most important thing was to be able to discuss issues openly.
That is still their main function.

"We're a forum for the exchange of information and ideas among equals,"
says chair, Rod Lanier of Lethbridge, Alberta. "At our meetings, one person
shares a challenge or a problem they face and the others offer their best suggestions."

Each member must commit to those principles, contributing as well as gaining
from the group, so all can benefit from each other's skills and experiences.
The level of trust among members has to be very high for them to share hard-won
knowledge and challenges that may expose their errors or weaknesses.

"It's good to get the group's views on issues you have in your business,"
says member, Dennis Benci of Carmangay, Alberta. "By showing each other
our problems, we can get a range of other viewpoints. Each person in the group
brings unique skills and experience to a problem, so when we pool our knowledge
we can work out better answers to problems than we can alone. Even if it's the
same answer as you worked out for yourself, it's good to hear the others agree
with you."

To maintain trust and commitment, the size of the group is limited. At present,
it is a small group, just 11 farmers. "We'd like to expand, perhaps to
15 or 20 members," says Lanier. "But, membership is a big commitment
on both sides. There's a courtship period and if a person wants to join, we
have a secret vote to accept them and it must be unanimous."

Members' ages vary, they farm across three soil zones, grow different crops
and some have livestock, but the diversity of experience and ideas helps them
offer constructive suggestions on issues members bring to the group. Members
share a commitment to farming better. They are all passionate in their interest
in managing every aspect of their farms better. Farming is their career and
their hobby.

To share the administrative load, executive duties rotate, so each member has
an executive position every few years. They have also hired a facilitator to
keep them on track and remind them of commitments. The group meets once a month
in the winter and less often during the summer to discuss issues that members
face. Sometimes they bring in a speaker. They also take a couple of days during
the summer to tour each other's farms.

"We don't show each other our best fields," says Lanier. "We
set out two or three of our biggest challenges and look at each other's problem
fields. Then, we share ideas on how to address the problems. Working together,
all of us improve our expertise and we don't have to re-invent the wheel. Because
we're all hands-on farmers, it's tough to get together in summer, but we all
make time for our tours. And, we phone each other to offer suggestions or work
out solutions outside our meetings."

Sharing experiences and ideas is the main function of the group, but members
get together on other activities too. They are looking at buying some inputs
together. This has taken a lot more work than simply working out quantities
and asking for tenders. Sharing knowledge of machinery has also led to some
sharing of equipment. They are working on ground rules for sharing equipment
as some are not able to start an operation like harvest until others are almost
done – an advantage of being spread over a big, varied area. A couple of
members worked together to build a machine they could not buy.

Marketing together is a possibility, although Lanier stresses that they are
not a marketing club. The members farm close enough to each other to produce
similar crops, but far enough apart that a hailstorm is not likely to leave
them unable to deliver on a contract. Working as a group, they would be a significant
supplier while maintaining the advantages of working individually.

Guidelines for starting a management
group

A management group has many benefits, but only if it is set up right,
say PAMS members. They thought long and hard about the needs and role
of the group before they set it up.

"You need a critical mass of people," says Brian Hildebrand
of Skiff, Alberta. "Eight is probably a minimum to keep everybody
engaged. Maximum membership is maybe 15, but that probably depends on
the group. You don't want so many that there's room for a person to hide
in the shadows. At some point, a group has too many people and it becomes
unwieldy."

"Contributing isn't an option in this sort of group, it's an obligation,"
says Rod Lanier. "A group like this isn't for people who just want
to learn. Each member has to be committed to the success of all the others
as well as to their own farm operation."

According to Hildebrand, members do not need to farm close together.
In fact, it may be best if they do not. The main thing is that they have
common goals and attitudes. Perhaps most important, they must have compatible
personalities, so the group dynamics are good.

Closed membership is important. A group can fall apart quickly if there
is any lack of trust or dislike in it. Prospective members have to be
approved by all members of the group. To keep a group functioning well,
it is best that the members be at broadly similar management levels.

Membership fees have to be enough to fund activities such as bringing
in speakers. It is also a demonstration of commitment to the group. One
way to be fair is to charge a flat fee to belong plus an annual fee per
farmed acre.