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Justin Beck has one big tip for beginning farmers: If you want to succeed on the family farm, get away from it.

“I would definitely suggest that you go work someplace else for a bit,” says the 26-year-old. “First, it’s going to help you decide whether farming is really what you want to do. And second, it’s going to give you a different perspective on management techniques and allow you to look at your operation from the outside.”

Beck always knew he wanted to farm and has been active in many organizations, including 4-H, the Nova Scotia Young Farmers’ Forum, and the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum. His involvement in the latter two groups (he’s been chair of both) has made him very aware of the challenges facing new entrants. In a presentation to the Senate’s standing committee on agriculture earlier this year, Beck spoke of issues such as the high cost of land and equipment, access to financing, and succession planning. But he also said today’s producers must “farm smarter,” and recommended working in another farm business to up your skill level.

“I went off the farm, and it was the best experience I ever had,” he told the committee.

Beck was lucky that circumstances gave him a little push at the right time.

“When I graduated from university there really wasn’t room for me on the farm unless they laid someone off, so that was what got me looking for work elsewhere,” says Beck, whose father has a 700-sow farrow-to-weaner hog operation near North Kingston in the Annapolis Valley region.

A family connection suggested he might find an opportunity with a grain and pedigreed seed operation about an hour’s drive away. When he met with the company’s owner, the two had a frank discussion.

“He outlined what he was looking for and I told him I was interested in the management side and learning about that – I wasn’t looking for a labourer job and that’s not what he wanted, either,” says Beck.

He was hired and now manages the grain operation, Lyndhurst Farms, a 1,400-acre farm that produces corn, soybeans, and wheat and also has facilities for custom storage and grain drying. The farm seemed huge to the young Beck as his dad’s operation grew very little of its own feed – planting and harvesting were tasks measured in hours, not weeks. While there was a learning curve on the production side, Beck says it was the style of management that gave him a new perspective on farming.

“For example, at Lyndhurst, there’s no family directly involved with the farm at the moment and so when we sit down for meetings, it’s a lot different than sitting around the kitchen table with mom and dad,” he says.

“It made me realize I’ve got a lot to learn when it comes to communication and that’s an area I’ve identified as a weakness. Working on another farm is very good for that because it’s different when you’re dealing with family. Improving my communication skills and human resources is probably my No. 1 priority now. In fact, right now I’m reading a book put out by Farm Management Canada on managing people on your farm.”

The lessons he’s learned at Lyndhurst apply to his family’s operation, even though it’s in an entirely different sector, says Beck, who also now works with his dad in the hog business.

“In the last few years, we’ve grown quite rapidly and when you do that it’s always a challenge to keep everyone informed and up to speed on all that’s happening,” he says.

Similarly, Lyndhurst’s diversification strategy and how it partners with others has provided valuable insights as Beck and his father develop a direct-sales strategy. (They currently supply pork to some farmers who sell meat at farmers’ markets and are working on a plan to sell pork directly to consumers and retailers.)

“It’s very interesting to go to another farm and see how they manage their business,” says Beck. “There’s the perspective thing. When you’re always immersed in something, it’s hard to see outside that. But once you step out of that box, you see things in a new way.

“But I’ve also found that it’s much like university – half of the value of my degree came from the people I met and the networks I become involved in.”

These networks are increasingly vital for young farmers, he adds.

“Today in agriculture, you can’t afford to make many mistakes and a big part of that is meeting people, talking to them about what they’ve gone through and learning from their experiences,” says Beck.

“There’s the textbook way of doing things – and I’d say that way works maybe one time in 15 – and then there’s the ‘this is how it actually gets done’ way. So learning from people who have experience will hopefully help you mitigate those mistakes.”

While it’s possible to develop networks and learn new ways of doing – and viewing – things without leaving the home farm, it’s easy to become complacent and think the way things are currently done is the best way, he says. Working on another operation virtually guarantees you’ll be exposed to new ways of thinking, learn more about your strengths and weaknesses, and get to know people you can turn to when faced with a challenge.

“I’ll say it again because I don’t think you can stress this enough: You can’t afford many mistakes in farming these days,” says Beck before adding with a laugh. “That is, unless you have a lot of money you don’t mind losing.”