Building a knowledge base for your farm team

Independence has always had its limits. Farmers have always enlisted off-farm experts to help solve tough production issues, and they’ve always kept their ears open when they’ve met with their bookkeepers or bank managers.

But times have sped up. Today’s farms, whether small, medium or large, are complex operations that require a team to help them thrive and build their sustainability. And, more than ever, that team must be a pool of all kinds of talents and specialized skills, whether it’s on the production or the business management side, which means that one of the top jobs for today’s farmers is knowing how to manage expert input, and how to align different kinds of advice into one, integrated farm strategy.

In some ways, the speed with which farmers have done this is one of the greatest success stories of modern agriculture.

It sure makes it vital, though, to know what kind of advice you want. Just think of the number of different names for the specific services that farm advisors offer. There are farm family coaches, leadership specialists, transition coaches, family business mediators, succession planners, wealth management experts, risk management specialists … the list goes on and on, not to mention accountants and lawyers with different strings of letters after their names.

Increasingly, though, more and more professional farm advisors, whatever their background and specific areas of expertise, are ready to sign on to a team approach with the goal of ensuring all the angles are covered when a client comes to them for advice. 

That’s what Stan MacEwen sees. MacEwen is senior associate with Laskowski and Wright LLP in Warman, Sask., and has been a farm advisor for more than 20 years, and he finds more independent advisors are working with other farm professionals in teams to better meet clients’ needs. 

It’s related to how MacEwen is also a chapter leader of CAFA, the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors and has served on its national board. CAFA considers it part of its mission to facilitate peer networks of farm advisors across the country, providing opportunities for them to get together and learn from each other.

Today, CAFA has around 600 members across Canada who are trained in a plethora of different disciplines. There are accountants and lawyers, of course, plus bankers and insurance brokers, and branding and marketing specialists. Still others bring business planning and vision-setting skills or a background in psychology that helps them mediate discussions and resolve conflict within farm families, while others have human resources or communications training or can advise on health and safety issues on the farm.

Perhaps one of CAFA’s key functions is to bring the sector together so members can get to know each other and their strengths and abilities. Armed with that knowledge, they’ve got a better shot at pulling the optimum team together for the job.

Skill set is crucial. Can they do the job that needs doing? Notice, for instance, that not all advisors deal strictly with farm succession, but with the needs that arise as a farm adapts to changing situations.

“I have introduced a client to a banker who helped him to increase his line of credit,” MacEwen says. “I have met lawyers who helped clients by understanding the desire for the farm to continue in the family … I have too many examples to list them all, but working with other professionals has helped my clients achieve better results.”

Also, though, it’s essential to look beyond skill set. Is this a person you can work with? It’s crucial that the advisor and client personalities match up. “Most lawyers can do what needs to be done, but there’s a lot of times this one will fit better with this client than that client, and it’s the same for mediators and financial planners,” says MacEwen. “There are people that I work with better too.”

“A reference is the biggest thing you can get in business,” says CAFA’s executive director Liz Robertson. “So, it’s good to know somebody well that you work with, you know how they work, you know when you can expect the work to be done, and that the work will be the calibre you want. Relationship building among these farm advisor networks is super important.”

It may even be more important to get the chemistry right when choosing an advisor who specializes in farm transition.

“Farm transition advisors are a special, unique breed who can help achieve consensus regarding the future of the farm and everyone’s role within it,” says Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada. “Just as you shop around for other professionals such as doctors and mechanics you click with, there has to be an interpersonal fit.” 

What’s driving change in the farm advisory sector?

Stan MacEwen has seen a lot of change in his 20 years of advising farm clients, but perhaps the biggest change is in how much of it is being driven by the farmers themselves.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how it happened.

“Farmers have seen the need to work together as they got bigger, with partnerships, then they got corporations and some went into joint ventures,” MacEwen says. “Then they started working their way up the food chain into being involved in input dealerships; some of them got together and formed grain terminals or groups to buy inputs.”

Farms also began exploring different market options like direct marketing to consumers whether through online sales, farmers markets or some kind of co-operative. Some, like oat producers, began selling their grains direct to U.S. buyers or millers. All such options require a degree of specialized knowledge. And then, as the farm operation grows and becomes more successful, it often needs more workers besides just the family.

“Suddenly, they need to bring in HR people that understand that you now have more people working for a wage, it’s not a son and daughter that you can promise them something in 20 years, it’s somebody you have got to pay them every two weeks,” says MacEwen.

Even resolving conflict isn’t as simple as it used to be for many family-operated farms.

“It’s not likely that someone just does what Dad says anymore, they question it or feel bad if they did what Dad said,” MacEwen says. “There’s more need for mediators or therapists of some kind to help because more people are working together.”

Workplace safety is another area of constant change with regulations that at one time may not have affected farm operations in the way that they do today, which also encompasses the welfare, including the mental health, of farm operators, their families and workers.

Changing roles

It’s not only farms that are changing but also the role of many farm advisors, especially those who have built up a long-term relationship with their clients.

“I’ve got more clients all the time saying, can you organize my team and have us all in the same room at least once a year? Would you facilitate that?” MacEwen says. “Annual meetings with clients and a team of advisors are becoming more common to go over past performance and plan for improvements going forward, not just meeting when there is an issue to be dealt with.”

In a way, the time has never been better. “The pandemic has helped us move forward with these meetings. It is easier to get a diverse group of advisors together for a Zoom meeting without all the travel. We used to think we needed to meet face to face, and in some instances we still should. Many times, a Zoom meeting gets thing done very efficiently.” 

Leading the way

One of the key areas that farm advisors still serve today is farm transition, a reflection of the fact that so many farms across Canada are poised to change hands as the older generation move into retirement. Statistics consistently show that many of them have still not started the process or have any formal plan or strategy in place.

There are over 193,000 farms in Canada and eventually every farm will, in one form or another, either transition to the next generation of owners and managers or go out of business. Current estimates predict three out of four farms will change hands over the next 10 years, so that’s 145,000 farms. Only a quarter of farms have a transition plan, though, leaving 109,000 without. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” says FMC’s Heather Watson, but she adds it may have beneficial ripple effects. “I sometimes refer to transition planning as the gateway to farm business management.”

So, there is plenty of opportunity, but that’s not to downplay the fact that farmers will need some juggling skills. And, of course, there’s an advisor for that too.

Says Watson, “We think of the farm transition advisor as the quarterback of that team.”

How do I find the right advisor?

1. Identify the areas of the farm’s operations where you need to bring in outside help

“The best place for a farm to start is with a farm business management assessment to determine what practices are currently in place and where support might be needed,” says Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada. “Farm managers can reflect on their capacity to fill the gaps, as well as those of members of the farm team through skills development opportunities, or otherwise solicit the help of an advisor.”

There are various assessment tools available online.

  • Dick Wittman Consulting in Idaho has a farm management proficiency test. 
  • Farm Management Canada has a national business practices assessment tool available and a platform to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment for the farm and start putting plans in place to better manage risk including risks related to farm transition planning.

2. Find the right advisor

  • OMAFRA has a fact sheet to help farmers find the right advisor to suit their needs.
  • Ask fellow farmers for recommendations of advisors they have used or know. 
  • Contact the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors ( They have a full listing of their members across Canada with bios and descriptions of their areas of expertise.


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