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Sharing information: right or wrong?

The simple truth is not so simple.


November 13, 2007
By Ralph Pearce

34aMost people have been raised to regard sharing as a virtue, a part of generosity.
Yet, has sharing become outdated in a business savvy age of trying to get ahead?

Many in the agri-food industry predict a new wave of improved prices and opportunities
coming in the next few years. As competitive natures and high value farming
practices begin to take shape at different levels though, is there a point at
which sharing places the search for new opportunities at risk? Is there a definitive
line between those occasions where sharing thoughts and experiences is allowed,
but sharing ideas and information is something to be avoided?

According to Chad Anderson, a certified crop advisor from Brigden, Ontario,
sharing can work to the advantage of a grower, particularly those willing to
form what he calls 'peer groups'. These loose associations of five, six or a
dozen growers provide the opportunity for learning, networking and exchanging
information in a relaxed and familiar setting. In these groups, says Anderson,
trust is an essential component. "If you're going to have a peer group
to learn from, you have to be open with all concepts, because the idea of a
peer group would be to draw on different strengths with different individuals.
If they're going to benefit mutually, I don't think you can put a fence up between
those different aspects."

One of the strengths that Anderson likes about peer groups is that it allows
for specific issues to be addressed. Private agronomists charge for their services
and provincial or federal extension personnel, by virtue of their position,
often make general statements on conditions. However, growers meeting, talking
and walking each others' fields provide examples and glimpses into similar yet
different practices and management styles. And in the process, a level of trust
is created.

"That's the only way you can make that group work, and that is to have
all the cards on the table," reasons Anderson. "You either build it
as a team or you need to hold your cards really tight, and keep your group really
small and intimate."

Line gets blurred
Asked if there is a figurative line that can be drawn between holding on to
information for the sake of protecting special traits or management styles versus
sharing it, Brent Vankoughnet concedes it can be a hard choice to make. He agrees
with Anderson on establishing trust and adds that there is a hard-to-define
value to those kinds of relationships.

Vankoughnet operates Agri Skills, a technology and human resources development
service in Carman, Manitoba. Among his suggestions to growers is the adoption
of a mind-set where they envision themselves as farm CEOs, a shift which he
says opens the mind to possibilities and indicates to others a different approach
to farming. At the same time, being a CEO means guarding information on new
markets, practices or technology.

On the other hand, there are times when sharing is the order of business. "The
thing about information is that it leaks fast, and you need the relationship
and the purpose for why you're connected to somebody else to be really clear
before you start investing so much in it," cautions Vankoughnet. Then there
are those who miss that trust in relationships with suppliers or neighbours.
But the competitive advantage that could be developed may not allow for that.
"There are some things that are just not appropriate to share with others
that may have been appropriate five years ago, and there's where a few feelings
might be hurt."

Differentiation not for everyone
It is not to say that sharing information is bad and hoarding is good, either.
For Dr. Larry Martin, the answer lies in the management approach and goals of
the individual. As CEO of the George Morris Centre in Guelph, Ontario, Martin
concedes that some growers or producers want to work within the traditional
least-cost management structure. He cites the case of one hog operation in western
Canada that set about determining its cost of production through a subscription
to a benchmarking service that counts some of the largest hog farms in North
America as its clients. The service shares details on cost of production parameters
like pigs per sow per year and daily gain.

"Those people are sharing information and learning how they stack-up,
and finding out there are others who stack up better shows them that they can
do better," explains Martin. It is a matter of sharing information without
risking the loss of any competitive advantage. "It's a great idea when
you're doing standard processing."

However, if a producer is working on a unique trait or specialty management
practice, the standard, least-cost approach leads to the breakdown of the market
that has developed. Something that is unique becomes a commodity. "You
figure out how to do better on standard practices, then share that information,
but when you have something unique, why would you share any information? The
more you talk about it, the higher the possibility you're going to get copied."

As Martin has pointed out to many in the agri-food sector, there is nothing
that says differentiation is the only alternative to commodity agriculture.
There are always possibilities.

Changing practices, changing regulations
One significant change in the manner in which information is shared comes from
constraints with the Privacy Act. As time itself becomes a rare commodity, more
growers are looking to professionals for help with soil sampling, field scouting
and other management services. Yet, for consultants like Steve Redmond, the
Privacy Act clearly spells out the kind of information that can be shared. Farmers,
sales representatives and consultants need to be more aware of the flow of information
and protect unique management information that should be shared without permission
of the farmer.

As a certified crop advisor with Agri-Trend Agrology, Redmond can discuss matters
directly with his client but not others beyond that relationship. "In local
communities, and the coffee shop is a perfect example, people will talk about
their neighbour's business or farmers will share information back and forth,
and that has spread to the point where we probably share too much information,
considering we do have a Privacy Act in place," says Redmond, who is based
in Lucan, Ontario.

A challenge in guarding such information, however, is the relative visibility
of agriculture. It is very difficult for a producer to hide his practices from
the watchful eyes of everyone who drives down the road. "As we start working
with those growers who are maybe adding different nutrients to their fertilizer
blend, I can have growers coming to me asking 'What is he applying over there
and why so much?'," says Redmond. "I can't share that information
because that's a specific recommendation I gave to that farmer based on soil
tests and he's made a decision to be a little different than his neighbours."

It all comes down to determining value: of advisory services, of the trust
established in a relationship whether it be a professional on-farm consultant
or the word of a neighbour, or the need to guard competitive advantages. Redmond
agrees with Martin that each grower is different in his wants and needs.

"You can have two people living side-by-side and one won't see the value
of consulting services but his next-door neighbour is paying thousands of dollars
for consulting, so somebody sees some long-term value and somebody doesn't,"
says Redmond.

Editor's note: Readers interested in hearing more of Brent Vankoughnet's
views on "The Evolution of Innovation" can do so by registering
for the February 20 and 21, 2007 conference of the Innovative Farmers Association
of Ontario.