It seems like a mystery: Studies show joining a farm management club boosts your bottom line, but the vast majority of farmers don’t belong to one.
There’s a simple reason for that, says Richard Boonstoppel, a New Brunswick dairy farmer and current chair of Fredericton Dairy Management Group.
“Most farmers have a hard time letting go and talking about their financial numbers,” says the 46-year-old, who operates Scotch Lake Dairy, a 50-cow operation just west of Fredericton.
“To do that, you open yourself up. And that’s sort of like standing in your underwear. It’s not something people initially like to do.”
But his group is proof that’s not an insurmountable barrier.
“The reason our group has worked is because my parents and the others who started it in the 1980s began by sitting around the table and talking about things that were directly related to financial matters without actually opening the books,” says Boonstoppel, who joined the group in 1996 when he and wife Carol began farming.
The group has been assisted in benchmarking by provincial officials, and currently, the Groupes conseils agricoles du Québec (which shares benchmark data from its management clubs). But the key was when when members felt comfortable enough to openly share their detailed numbers.
“That’s when the real learning starts because you can really see what’s going on and ask very specific questions about how you do this and why you do that.”
It had an immediate and direct impact. Some members discovered they had higher insurance or loans rates than comparable farms. Boonstoppel started buying heifer feed in bulk when another member walked him through those numbers. Today every member of the group, which meets every three or four months, has moved up in key benchmarking categories and become more profitable.
Boonstoppel also says the knowledge he’s gained from the group was invaluable in making the biggest decision of his farming career – becoming the first producer in his province to adopt robotic milking.
In August 2009, he and Carol were heading home from a U.S. vacation when they stopped to visit a Lely dealer in Ontario and checked out the company’s robotic milkers – which cost more than $200,000 apiece – at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show.
“We talked about it on the way home, and I actually said ‘I’m not sure I have the intestinal fortitude to go into this,’” recalls Boonstoppel. “But as time went on it became more palatable. In February, we went back to Ontario to see these robots on some farms and in May, we signed the papers.”
There was also, of course, a lot of number crunching during that time.
“Your head can start spinning,” he says. “But the main thing was that we had the numbers. We knew how we benchmarked against industry averages and that we had some room on the financial side to go ahead.”
He was also able to run his plan past his “think tank.”
“Some guys were apprehensive and I heard a lot of ‘Are you sure about that?’ comments,” he says. “But you need that critical thinking. Some people are forward thinking and, if they always did what they wanted, they could easily get in over their heads. You need people who question you.”
Being part of the group is even more useful now than when he first joined because “farming today is all about information” and there’s always something new to deal with, he adds.
“We have a good mix – the younger members bring new ideas and the older ones are able to speak from experience and ask good questions.”
Every farmer can benefit from being in a management club and the key is to start small, take it slow, and have a good time, says Boonstoppel. And while numbers and benchmarking are the focus, you learn a lot from the discussion they spark, he says.
“Nobody is good at all things and you can learn something from everyone,” he says.
Farm Management Canada and the Agricultural Management Institute have produced a guide for starting and managing a farm management club. Farmers Working with Farmers: The Power of Groups, available in the Resources Centre at fmc-gac.com.