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Skill and knowledge go hand in hand

Farmers have always been noted as needing to be something of Jacks-of-all-trades.

Farmers have always been noted as needing to be something of Jacks-of-all-trades. I suppose that goes back to the earliest days of farming where operations were mixed, meaning you had to know about growing crops as well as animal husbandry, and to an era where you had to make and/or fix, your own equipment either because there was no repair shop close by, or the costs were too high.

The farmer not only required the broad knowledge base, but also had to have the skills to use such knowledge.

Things have changed today in some key aspects of what a farmer needs to do, and know.

The scale of operations has been trending ever larger for decades, and with the growth of farm size the actual owner is in some ways becoming increasingly detached from the day-to-day operations of a farm, taking on more of CEO role, managing people, money and time.

We see this in two areas, the first being the actual workings of a farm.

Grain farmers, as an example, now look to hire many key jobs done on a custom basis. We see farmers paying others to apply fertilizers and to spray crops, both as a way to reduce capital investment, and to hand over key element of a crop's yield potential to experts.

While not as widespread in Canada as in the United States, more farmers are looking to custom harvesters to combine their crops in the fall as well.

It makes sense if you recognize a farmer can't drive all the equipment himself, but it's increasingly difficult to find staff who are willing to work a few weeks each fall who have the knowledge and expertise to put behind the wheel of a quarter of a million dollar combine, with an instrument panel that could come from a space ship.

The level of technology in modern farm equipment also means farmers don't hammer out most repairs in their shop today, but again turn to expertise to makes fixes.

A farmer today is also challenged to keep pace on the knowledge side of a farm operation.

A decision as seemingly simple as choosing a canola variety to grow is made more difficult by the growing list of varieties, each with varying agronomic potential based on soil type, growing region, disease presence and numerous other factors which need to be understood to make the best choice.

The same can be said about which nutrient package to use. A soil test is the foundation of a plan, but the growing realization micronutrients can play is a vital role in production, coupled with global positioning technology which allows fertilizer rate variation almost on an acre-by-acre basis requires a much broader knowledge base than a farmer making a fertilizer decision in 1980.

So we see many farmers looking to hire agrologists who provide their specific expertise to designing a cropping plan.

At the other end of production marketing was once a case of hauling grain to the nearest elevator and pulling the chute and picking up the cheque.

Today specialty crops need to be shopped to numerous markets. Crops can be sold months ahead of harvest to protect price. Marketing has become a huge part of the farm's success, and again requires skills not needed a decade or so ago.

Farmers often look to hire marketing expertise to carry out that aspect of their business.

The end result farmers are becoming people managers as much as farm managers. They need to find those with the required expertise and then build working relationships with those experts. It is becoming less about walking through a field than it is about sitting through consultations at the desks of those hired to lend expertise to the farm.

It is a different role farmers are having to adapt to quickly to ensure operational viability in the face of rapidly evolving knowledge and technology.

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