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Many farmers tend to get caught up in the day-to-day tasks of their operation and don’t take the time to sit down and think about how they are doing. Even if they do, the competitiveness of farming makes it difficult to share challenges and successes with neighbors. HTS Ag is solving this problem through its Grower Peer Groups.
“The Grower Peer Groups get together in Des Moines, Iowa, four times a year for two days at a time and give a report card,” says Terry Johnston of HTS Ag in Harlan, Iowa. “They discuss what went well on their operations, what didn’t, what their struggles are, and they share ideas.”
The first group began meeting in 2014 and was made up of people who Johnston and his colleagues knew. Since then, they have expanded into three separate groups with about 10 people in each. They are considering starting a group that focuses on organic farming.
While the majority of members are from Iowa, the newer groups have producers who farm in Missouri and Nebraska. In addition to grain farming, many of the members also have businesses that involve trucking, spraying chemicals, and raising livestock.
At each meeting, the farmers learn from not only each other, but also industry experts.
“We discuss marketing and estate planning at almost every meeting because the group has decided it is important,” says Johnston. “Other topics are decided by what they want to learn more about and what comes up in meetings. If a specialist on the topic isn’t in the group, we will bring one in.”
Topics include conservation, cover crops, and improving soybean yields.
During the last meeting, Steve Bohr of Farm Financial Strategies, educated the group on estate planning and farm transition. Many of the producers asked questions throughout the presentation regarding their own operations, as well as their friends’, and they plan on making appointments to meet with Bohr in the near future.
Between speakers, the group sets aside time at every meeting to exchange ideas. In order to make sharing easier, Johnston ensures no one is in the same group as a neighbor or a direct competitor.
“During the best practices idea exchange, each producer puts $20 in a pot and shares a practice or idea that has been effective on his or her operation,” says Johnston. “After everyone has shared, the group votes on the best idea and the winner takes the pot. It’s a great way to add value to the meeting while still keeping it fun.”
After the group dismisses on the second day, there is still work to do.
One of the requirements for being in the group is completing homework every quarter. This consists of an extensive Excel spreadsheet about what went well in the business and what didn’t, as well as a self-evaluation. If producers are married, the spouses must also evaluate how they have been handling personal life.
In addition to homework, the group members have to set one personal and two business goals each quarter. The goals must be tangible, attainable, and need to be completed by the next meeting.
“People get a lot of things done that they usually wouldn’t because they made it a goal in peer group,” says Johnston. “There are emails going around between meetings and the members hold each other accountable.”
Group member Eric Andersen of Grundy County, Iowa, has been coming to Grower Peer Group since it began. Andersen has been farming seed corn, as well as seed and commercial beans full time since 1992.
“I started coming because Terry invited me, but I kept coming because I learn something new and valuable each time,” says Andersen. “Even though being away eight days a year is a big time commitment, it has been worth it every time.”
Though he hasn’t changed anything major, Andersen has made improvements in the agronomics, equipment, risk, and financial aspects of his operation as a result of coming to the meetings.
Johnston believes the Grower Peer Group is a unique and valuable experience for farmers that they aren’t able to get anywhere else.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are a dentist, run a tire shop, or own a hotel – you have to stop and think about why you are doing this and if you’re doing it well,” he says. “You have to compare yourself to others to find that out.”