After writing last month’s column on managing for profit, I got to thinking about the advancing age of most of America’s farmers and ranchers. It appears that in only a few cases are the reins being passed to the next generation.
I have to ask why? Has the next generation decided that ranching can’t be profitable and enjoyable and, therefore, have already left the home place to find a better future? Are Mom and Dad putting off the issues of intergenerational transfer of management and ownership?
Following those questions, I began to reflect on the complexity of management in a farming or ranching system which combines the difficulty of prediction in biological systems buffeted by climate and good business practices. This complexity of farming and ranching systems requires a high level of competence, work, passion and leadership in those wanting to become qualified, successful managers.
I frequently get requests for names of qualified managers. The truly good ones are either self-employed on their family operation or are employed by absentee owners and are very satisfied with their jobs—they are also well seasoned and well paid, so not attractive for someone who wants a manager for the typical small- to moderate-sized operation.
So, that leads to the next questions: Where do we find them? How do they become qualified?
I can tell you from too much experience that a college degree in an agricultural discipline does not qualify them. It is a start and some become qualified very quickly. However, most take some time; and, along the way, some of them decide they don’t want the manager’s job. Some want the title and salary of a manager, but don’t really want the manager’s job.
Too many of today’s so called “managers” fall into this category. They have the position, but don’t do the “manager’s job.” They take care of the day-to-day tasks (often quite well), but fail to work on strategies that will ensure long-term profitability. They plan the implementation of tasks, but fail to plan where to spend dollars and time for best long-term financial results. They typically lack the skills for financial and economic analysis, an understanding of the science, leadership skills or they don’t care to do that kind of work. To be a good manager, you must become a systems thinker.
To find a highly qualified manager today, you will most likely need to find one who is working under the supervision of an excellent manager whose retirement is quite a few years away. Good managers are often trained by good managers and then move to be promoted rather than waiting for their turn at their present employer.
Now I get to the question of what advice would I give a high school graduate who wants to become a successful ranch manager? That leads to several follow-up questions: How much money do you want to spend on your education? What level of management do you aspire to? How much time are you willing to take?
Now I am going to get a little critical of our college and university systems. While doing so, I want my friends at universities to know that I place great value on my own college education and even more education acquired since graduation by staying connected to a number of universities and research stations along with their professors and researchers. However, acquiring a degree from the typical university has become very costly and often places a huge burden of debt on young people.
I am also a believer in general education, but can young, prospective ranchers afford it when their main objective is to learn how to be competent in a job?
So now I ask this question: What if a high school graduate, knowing that he or she wants a role in farm or ranch management, went to college in a non-degree seeking mode and got a basic introductory understanding of the following?
- Chemistry and biology, which are the foundational sciences of all farm and ranch production
- Animal nutrition and reproduction
- Soils and plant physiology
- Basic business including micro- and macroeconomics, financial and managerial accounting, and finance
- Communications—reading, writing, speaking and listening
The student/learner would then follow that up with four or five internships that are six months long with good farmers or ranchers with known track records of profitability and ability to teach and mentor. I recognize this approach is almost unthinkable and may not even be allowed by some universities and academic advisors.
To take it a step further, I would ask, “Why, after successfully completing that kind of educational pursuit (basic academic course work followed by rigorous, high-quality internships), is that type of student not considered a worthy candidate for specialized terminal Master’s degree programs? I easily could have gone into my own Master’s degree program with that background and would have become much more qualified much more quickly. I wish I could have done that.
If that approach creates the desire to become a life-long learner, the universities and their good teachers and researchers will continue to be accessed and general education will continue to happen on a real-world, applied and practical basis. And, if you’re not a life-long learner, none of this matters anyway.