Your farm relies on good relationships. These four farmers describe the most important relationships for their farm business and explain the characteristics they look for when choosing who to work with.

Business Relationships

Lesley Kelly
Watrous, Sask.

Lesley Kelly worked with her family partners to identify three pillars – “the three-legged stool” – on which the success of the farm depends. The first pillar is the family unit – Kelly and her mom, dad, husband and brother – that runs the farm. The second pillar includes all the outside expertise required, including agronomist, equipment dealer, crop input retailers, neighbours, landlords, accountant and strategic coach. The third pillar is consumers.

Identifying these three pillars and the essential people within them came about after a succession planning exercise. During that exercise, the family also assigned specific roles for each member of pillar one. “My skill set is best used in business strategy and marketing, so I took the lead on pillar three,” Kelly says.

Kelly has a blog called High Heels and Canola Fields and she shares stories about the farm through Twitter (@lesleyraekelly), Instagram (@highheelsandcanolafields) and Facebook (@highheelsandcanolafields). “I write about what the guys are doing in the fields and why they do it,” she says. “Any feedback I get from consumers I take back to the farm.”

Describing who makes it inside pillar two, the first word Kelly uses is “trust”. This trust has a lot of value for the farm business, and building two-way trust takes a lot of communication and openness, Kelly says. Beyond trust, the people they deal with must also provide expertise, good service and a fair price.

Canola Digest asked Kelly how she might change her approach as a way to enhance these business relationships (to put herself in another person’s shoes). She says she asks herself every day what she can do to improve. For one thing, she’s learned to deal better with those moments when she’s upset. “The reason I’m upset is often because I didn’t set clear expectations, and that’s on me,” she says. “The person might not even realize they did anything wrong.”

She gives an example. “You expect someone to be at the farm at 10 a.m. to make a delivery and they don’t show up until 11. You need to ask them why they didn’t show up on time. With this communication, you may discover that they had a really good reason for being late,” she says. “Or maybe they didn’t know that showing up at 10 sharp was an expectation.”

Will Bergmann
Glenlea, Man.

Will Bergmann has a lot of important business relationships on the production side of the farm, but his focus has been on the consumer side: He wants to know his customers. And he wants them to know about him and his farm.

“What’s really important to me is the relationship with food. I’m growing food. I want to know how that food is being used in households and restaurants,” Bergmann says.

He believes that a strong connection to his customers through conversations and stories will define how his farm business will look in the future. “We have an opportunity to build relationships with consumers and mold their thoughts on what modern day agriculture looks like,” he says. “It doesn’t take very long for those stories to get passed along, and they can so quickly get to the Parliamentary level.”

What do farmers and their consumers talk about? “We can talk about our food,” Bergmann says. “Everyone has something in common: they need to eat.”

Bergmann has worked with Manitoba Canola Growers in its efforts to expand canola market share in Ontario. “I give MCGA props for seeing there was room for improvement in market share in Toronto,” he says. “And they did that by connecting farmers like me with chefs and foodie people. We made it personal.”

It was not a hard sell, he says. “I was just being a farmer” – working on those relationships that connect people to the ‘made in Canada’ product that is canola oil.

Bergmann adds that “while city people may not know much about farming, farmers have to realize that we often don’t know much about the cities either. It goes both ways.”

On the farm side, Bergmann would like to see an end to the bickering between organic and conventional agriculture. “Ultimately, we have to realize that it takes all kinds to feed people. We all want to provide safe, nutritious, affordable food for everyone,” he says. “Farmers depend on public trust, and that means being transparent about what we’re doing on the farm and why.”

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Face-to-face conversations are an important step in building business relationships.

Tom Coppock
Castor, Alta.

Tom Coppock calls himself “loyal to a fault”. He has suppliers, professional advisors and market outlets that he trusts and deals with regularly.

“I don’t shop around with every deal I make,” he says. But at the same time, he expects the same loyalty in return. “If they screw me once, I will never be back.” As a farm business, he also needs top-notch service, so a drop in service will force him too look around. “Businesses have to show that they’re truly trying to improve. The relationship can’t be one sided,” he says.

His advice for companies trying to get his business: “Put themselves out there. Make face-to-face connections. Be active in the community.” Coppock is part of a group of farmers who get together to check crops through the season and talk marketing in the winter. Sometimes they have suppliers come to their meetings. He would encourage new businesses to make that connection and come talk to them.

As for what he can do to improve his side of the business relationship, he gives himself the same advice. Get out there. Talk to people with new ideas or services. Make a point of meeting new people at farm shows.

Nick Wourms
St. Walburg, Sask.

The Wourms’ farm is in growth mode and Nick, at age 24, has been given the reins from his parents Ken and Kristi. The farm had been a large cattle ranch up until three years ago when it transitioned to grain and started converting pastureland to cropland and putting up bins. It took a lot of money and Wourms needed banks that would let them make those moves. He has a “very good and important” relationship with HSBC bank, which “doesn’t limit our growth at all,” and he says the FCC programs for young farmers are “unmatched.”

It helps that he can talk the talk. He has a B.Comm in Finance from the University of Saskatchewan. While at university, he also took tax and accounting classes that he says “helped me a lot in business management.”

Part of his management approach is to challenge retailers to do better. As a result, he has saved $100,000 or more on annual crop inputs and moved away from strict loyalty to one colour of equipment. His approach with machinery is to figure out the equipment size and features that are best for the operation and then shop around. One feature “best for the operation” was section control on the drill. Due to field dimensions and topography, they end up covering a lot of area twice – about 12 per cent – due to tight turns and odd shapes. Section control was an important feature to limit over-seeding and over-fertilizing all those overlaps. It saved them $75,000 this year, Wourms says. The key was the section control feature. Machinery brand was not so important.

What he wants from suppliers is flexibility, trust and transparency. “I want to know how much money they’re making off me,” he says. “Even if we have a personal relationship, business is business and we have to set aside those relationships. I’m fine with them making a margin because that’s how it works, but I’m not going to starve my business to help them.”

Other important relationships for Wourms are with the accountant and agronomists. He needs an accountant who can understand Wourms’ approach to risk and can tap into knowledge within the accounting firm when it comes to more complex farm business tax planning. “When it comes to agronomic products and services, we don’t just go with the business with the lowest cost. We use premium products and want the peace of mind that businesses are working with us and not taking advantage,” he says. “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”

And finally, Wourms has his personal relationships. His girlfriend, Shayla Hertz (in the photo with Wourms), who has an ag business degree from the University of Saskatchewan, is moving to the farm. He also has the support of his parents, both of whom have economics degrees and “are not afraid of risk at all.”