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What It Takes to Make It to the Top

February 7, 2012
By: Ed Clark, Top Producer Business and Issues Editor

There is no ideal farm background, but some skill sets are crucial

Is there an ideal background for farming? The short answer is no. Business, agronomy, animal science, even engineering serve producers equally well. While most farmers grow up on farms and hone skills and knowledge from family members, even familial farm upbringing is not a necessity, given the will, desire and love of farming.

To become a highly successful producer and maintain that trajectory requires top production and business skills. Top Producer interviewed farmers, economists and farm consultants about their thoughts on the ideal background for a top farmer. You might be surprised at some of the experience they suggest is invaluable to success in farming.

Steve Henry

Nevada, Iowa

The farmers who Steve Henry looks up to the most are good stewards, good with people and good with handling money and they have a handle on how to use technology. "We have to have the ability to adjust to technological change," says the Nevada, Iowa, crop producer. "We always have to be learning, whether it is through university or Extension programs or part of a farmer network," he adds. Producers today are working with more people, which puts a premium on developing labor management skills. "We also have to make decisions faster, like other businesses, and we have to adjust to change," he says.


Gary Schnitkey

University of Illinois

The ability to "sell yourself" is as valuable as any learned skill set, says Gary Schnitkey, University of Illinois economist. For example, farmers who get the rental agreement need more than cash, which other farmers have—they must convince landlords that they will do the best job, which gets down to old-fashioned salesmanship, he says. Selling yourself is not just useful for landlords, it’s important for bankers, suppliers and others. Selling is natural for some farmers, but for those for whom is not, Schnitkey recommends marketing sales courses at colleges or special programs devoted to the topic.

Schnitkey also says it’s important to have or develop the ability to be comfortable with groups of people, so you can represent yourself and your farm in a good manner.

He recommends farmers obtain an MBA to further develop their finance, marketing and business organization skills.

Following college, Schnitkey recommends several years of working off the farm at another business, regardless of whether it is ag or not, to learn how other organizations work and function. It’s particularly valuable to learn good employee management skills.

Lastly, he thinks it’s important for farmers to study abroad and look at agriculture in other areas. "We compete in a worldwide market," he says.


Matt Stockton

University of Nebraska

Farmers today especially need a background that allows them to be competent and comfortable handling large sums of money, says Matt Stockton, an ag economist at the University of Nebraska. While it’s important to have business and production expertise, producers also can use a variety of consultants to boost areas where they have less knowledge or desire. There is no one path or

college major that’s right for everyone, Stockton says. In the future, he says, "agriculture will become more complex, require more skills." That means that producers will have to be lifelong students. "Not everything will need to be learned in the classroom," he says.


Marvion Reichert

Elm Creek, Neb.

One of the most important experiences for becoming a successful farmer is to take on a mentor to aid in the learning process, says Nebraska producer Marvin Reichert. Equally important is to have in your background the will to farm and the love to farm, or you won’t be successful. "I love farming—not every day, but by and large, I do. It’s not a vocation, but like being on vacation."

While Reichert has a college degree, he does not believe one is necessarily required to be a successful farmer, noting that he knows a number of successful farmers who do not have one. Some type of education in marketing and finance is important to succeed, though, he says.

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - February 2012

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