Since when do independent-thinking farmers get together to share ideas that work?
Since they recognize the power of sharing proven high-profit farming ideas. “What works for one successful farm probably works for the others, and we each bring different approaches and emphases to the group,” says central Illinois and South American grower Adrian Fay. He started an information-sharing group of 10-12 “top-notch” farms “to take our operations to the next level.”
Eighteen months ago he invited a geographically diverse group of very successful U.S. growers, along with several Extension and industry experts, to join his new idea-sharing group, Midwest Agribusiness Innovation Network (MAIN). The growers were hand-picked from four Midwestern states and Kentucky.
“Who’s in the group is essential; we balance the contrarians with the more conservative thinkers,” Fay says. “An open mind is key.”
Fay is not solely a farmer. He’s an Ivy League biological engineer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) lecturer and general brainiac. But the group’s purpose is quite simple: to convene like-minded, successful, rapidly growing farmers to share ideas that expand profits per acre.
“These (group members) are itching to perfect what they do; they are not conformists,” Fay says. “Nothing is more loud and clear to them than knowing they have to join forces to prosper and grow.
“In a commodity business like farming, success comes from small improvements in 20 different parts of the operation, from soil testing, rotation and hybrid selection, to the amount of insurance you choose. The complexity in any of these 20 areas has increased enormously in the last three or four decades, making it difficult for one individual to know and implement all 20,” says Fay, a Harvard graduate and MIT researcher.
Kevin Dhuyvetter, farm-management specialist, Kansas State University, agrees that it’s extremely difficult for one producer to be an expert on so many different things (fertilizer programs, hybrids, crop insurance, etc.).
Fay continues, “Because we cannot earn a premium in our (corn- and soybean-growing) business, success comes from reducing our unit costs, assuming that you’ve perfected your marketing and risk management. Our group believes that you share strategies and information because it’s a win-win.”
University of Illinois Farm Management Extension SpecialistGary Schnitkey agrees. “This concept is a great idea and cost control is the process of getting the small things right.”
The MAIN growers come from Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, and more have been invited from Ohio and Wisconsin. The professionally moderated, invitation-only group meets twice annually. Members wrote its charter, limiting membership to those at least 100 miles from one another who conduct on-farm test plots of some kind. The agenda is set several months beforehand so that people come prepared.
“There are teams within the group working on various projects, such as 300-bu. corn, soybean productivity, soil quality and soil testing,” Fay says.
“A meeting opens with each person sharing his results and innovations this year. The benefit comes when another grower builds on a person’s results, by saying something like, ‘Oh that’s interesting but I did this other thing and also used this technology, and that cost me so many dollars per acre.’ Each person fine-tunes others’ innovations, and the cross pollination is very important among group members,” Fay says. The grower perspective is balanced with industry specialists and researchers to mix things up.
“Each and every member brings brilliant ideas to the table, and each has his own business strategy and interesting way to grow. Everyone agrees that efficiency on the farm is paramount, but that we each reach that goal in different ways,” Fays says.
The group also hears from specialized experts on a given topic.
“These growers operate at an executive level; they’ve already found ways to make time for themselves to operate strategically; they all have ways to share the day-to-day chores with others so that they can focus on the big picture,” Fay says.
It’s essential to meet face to face for a full day, rather than virtually, he adds. “The chemistry of the group is so much stronger that way. These are growers thinking about the next way to operate more profitably. They don’t follow the book; they write the book.”
For more on Adrian Fay, see http://cornandsoybeandigest.com/buy-american.
What makes networking groups succeed?
Kevin Dhuyvetter, farm-management specialist, Kansas State University, offers some pointers for networking groups to succeed. He’s involved in another peer-networking ag group: K-State’s Ag Economics Management, Analysis and Strategic Thinking program (MAST).
The common thread is bringing professionals together to challenge them on their management. He’s also aware of several others where producers meet regularly to challenge and learn from each other: Texas A&M’s Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP), several Kansas dairy peer groups, a swine peer group and a wheat seminar group.
- You need to have someone "champion" a group’s effort to keep it going, Dhuyvetter says. “I'm guessing there have been lots of groups like this start, only to fizzle because nobody stepped up to provide the leadership.”
- Group participants need to have open minds and a thick skin.
- It helps when group participants aren’t neighbors where they’re directly competing for land. It’s easier to share with “strangers” than with neighbors.
- A successful networking group has a variety of expert resources and doesn’t rely solely on just farmers, university researchers, Extension specialists or crop consultants.