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NEW IDEAS: Staying down on the farm is important to getting the work done, but fine-tuning management or adding income through new businesses may mean getting away.

5 things I learned from a recent farm tour

Another Voice: The ability to check out agriculture somewhere else offered some interesting management insights.

We’re in a culture that’s about getting it done. The work faces you every morning, no matter what you raise on your operation. And sometimes you get so focused on the day-to-day, it’s difficult to raise your head up to learn more about how to do things better.

I have the luxury of traveling the country, and that allows me to see farming operations everywhere. The commonalities between a Northeastern operation and one in the West may be more relevant than you think. Sure, they deal with traffic and expanding markets while you’re in the wide-open spaces, but they’re also dealing with regulations, labor, management and more.

I recently took a farm tour as part of the Mid-Atlantic Master Farmers event, of which our sister publication American Agriculturist is a part. I got some time with top-notch farmers, and during the tour I got a look at different business models. And along the way I picked up a few ideas. Here are five to consider:

1. Separation of labor. Whether it was an operation raising nursery plants for professional landscapers or a corn-soybean-wheat operation adding a winery, labor is an issue. But beyond the usual “We can’t find people” refrain, there was an underlying theme from the owners of the five businesses we visited — separation of responsibilities. Busy farmers can’t be all things to all people, which means either training someone else in the family or hiring in talent.

For one turf farm we visited, the owner’s wife does the selling while he handles the production. For a row crop farm, a hired person is responsible for the crop operation while one farm owner spends time building a new wine business. (Full disclosure: Tasty wine soon to be ordered online in our house).

2. Don’t do it all. This relates to Point No. 1, but have you evaluated responsibilities in your operation? As the next generation comes in, should you be cutting loose some responsibilities to them?

At a produce operation, where farm transition was also an issue, the next generation is building on early success. But that means one family member does marketing, another handles agronomy and still another the human resources issues. For that operation, the last item is a big deal, since they cut more than 240 W-2 forms every January — that’s a lot of labor to manage.

Even for a standard crop or livestock operation, surely someone in the operation is better at one thing than another, and that expertise translates into a healthier bottom line. Divvying up roles can make a big difference, especially as a farm or ranch grows.

3. Expert help. Beyond dividing responsibilities, assess the knowledge you have in-house, and determine if you need to hire that expertise into the business. At the produce operation, it turns out the “markets” person had a background with a major retail firm. Knowing how to manage vendor relationships, source materials and handle inventory is a big deal.

Row crop operations often hire consultants to help with agronomy issues or risk management programs. But what areas do you really need help with? And if you’re changing your crop mix, looking for an outside veteran employee can make a difference.

4. Making the investment. This is always a challenge for any business: deciding where to invest. For the sod farm we visited, the owner was using a high-end automatic cutter, roller and palletizing machine (built in Oregon) that was a big investment. And he had two — the second being an older machine. He admitted his operation wasn’t really large enough to support two, but his operation could not afford to be “down,” either. That meant keeping two of those autocutter-rollers on hand as a cost of doing business.

What part of your operation would benefit from redundancy? Exploring that and then working the business case to make the investment could offer a payoff.

5. Succession matters. During one of the farm visits, a grower of ornamental shrubs and trees has no family that wants to take over the business. He’s committed to “being a pain to his kids” by staying with it until he “goes,” and then leaving the business for them to sort out. Probably not the best succession plan, but perhaps more common than most. But that shows the need for such a plan in any business.

Five simple ideas picked up during a warm Saturday traveling the countryside. The key is getting outside your space, and learning what others do. To say the least, a good time was had by all.

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