June 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW1
Determining Needs of Farmers for Management Knowledge
Farmers may have difficulty expressing needed management knowledge. Determining the best way to learn this information and then finding the best way to provide it can a be challenging. Facilitated discussion groups were asked open-ended questions regarding management. This environment provided an effective method for participants to identify and expand on these needs. Responses pointed out the need for people-oriented management training with stress management a priority.
Identifying needs of farm managers for knowledge and finding the best way to provide it is a challenge. It can be an even more difficult task because managers may find it hard to express what they need. Determining the best way to met those educational needs is also a challenge.
In the first half of 1997, voluntary discussion groups in the New York counties of Cattaraugus, Columbia, Cortland, Madison/Oneida, and Steuben were arranged with the help of Cornell Cooperative Extension agents. The objectives for these groups were to get a better understanding of farmers' needs for management knowledge, enhance methods of information presentation, and to strengthen management education workshops. The environment for the groups would be informal and relaxed. Participants would be acknowledged as experts about the desired information and would do most of the talking. The program would allow appropriate digression from questions to enhance discussion and include questions common to all groups.
Of 33 invited to participate, 28 were dairy farmers. The average participant was 47.5 years of age and milked 120 cows. The farm businesses had an stability rating of 3.8 on a 1(low) to 5(high) basis as judged by Cornell Cooperative Extension agents. All participants contributed to the discussion and had positive attitudes in discussing the questions. The groups also included the local Cornell Cooperative Extension agent(s) or specialist(s). The author was facilitator.
Sessions lasted from 1-to-3 hours with candid and animated conversations. All met the goal of answering the questions, with the depth of discussion effected in the two shortest sessions because they were part of agriculture program committee meetings. The others were held specifically to meet the set objectives, with two mid-day meetings the most in-depth.
While most farm managers understand the importance of management concepts and skills, many do not have a working knowledge of management vocabulary. The following general, open- ended questions were asked in an attempt to make it easier for participants to discuss management issues and their importance. The number in parenthesis indicates the groups with same or similar answer.
1-If you were on a farm tour, how would you judge a farm's management ability? Appearance of farm (5); "bottom line" of financial statement (4); use of current technical procedures (3); how cows look and are cared for (3); well matched and cared for machinery/equipment (3); timeliness of cropping (2); milk production (2); values of the farmer (reasons for farming other than "bottom line").
2-Why don't some farmers take the time to plan? Too busy working (3); stuck in a rut by habit or fear of change; can't separate urgent and important; too much stress; never followed previous plans because they didn't have alternative approaches; lack of money.
3-How can the worth of management be appreciated? Measuring profitability by knowing cost and level of production (3); less stress means good management (2); listening, interacting and comparing yourself with successful people; potential returns from management education; results of plan implementation.
4-What groups within the dairy industry need help the most? Those lacking their desired quality of life (2); those that aren't going to be part of the industry's future and haven't realized it yet; those that aren't going to be part of the industry's future, have realized it, and don't know what to do about it; those who realized they won't be part of the industry, but can't afford to get out, or have to sell the farm and can't get enough for their retirement income, so they keep on farming; those who won't admit they need help; those who have too much pride; those that are difficult to reach such as the "one man show" or others who feel they can't leave the farm; employees who manage areas of large farms.
5-What is the best way to reach someone with management information? One-on-one (3); newsletters (3); workshops (2); dairy publications (2); FAX (2); small chunks of information mixed with practical experience and more complete discussion; pluses given for showing the benefits, particularly in dollars, for any topic; video but not audio; less concept, more application; quit thinking you have to prove what you say is correct (we believe in you).
6 - If you could learn one thing to strengthen your management ability; what would it be? Stress management (3); time management (3); keeping sight of goals (2); delegation (2); planning; decision making; training; money management; forecasting the future; creating more family time.
The discussion groups reported in this document indicated a strong need for people oriented and/or human resource knowledge for the farm community. It would also appear that the stress of managing a farm business is increasing to the point where stress is not only recognized, but vocalized as being a common problem needing greater attention in the farm community.
Financial comparisons designed to help farmers recognize the worth of management could find broad usage. A means of relating a manager's positive feelings about the business to successful management could also prove useful when numerical measurements are not available. Follow-up also needs to be done to identify the best ways to bring knowledge to an audience in specific circumstances.
Facilitated discussion groups can be an effective means of getting farm participants to express their feelings on a given topic. The synergy created through informal conversation with peers can expand many ideas beyond the initial thought. Letting participants know they are the experts and allowing them to drive the conversation can create candid and animated responses.
A broader use of facilitated discussion groups for interactions and assessments with farmers could prove to be beneficial to educators and others desiring to identify needs and provide appropriate knowledge. They may be particularly suited to topics such as management where discussion with peers can help define problems that are difficult to express.