The power of peer groups

Managing a farm or ranch can often feel long on responsibilities and short on useful advice.

You wonder whether you’re making the right decisions, whether you’re missing new ideas or opportunities. You ask yourself, “Are my struggles unique? How do other farmers or ranchers keep up?”

That’s where peer groups can help. These professionally facilitated groups provide producers with new methods, solutions and support. They allow members to confidentially discuss high-level problems and concerns.

“Peer groups provide the opportunity to learn from and with people in similar situations,” says Davon Cook, a Pinion ag advisor who’s facilitated hundreds of ag peer-group meetings.

How peer groups work

Typically, peer-group participants gather two to three times a year with a small group of like-minded members. A professional facilitator organizes the meeting and agenda, then manages the flow of conversation and information-sharing. Some content is shared from external experts. Some is from members teaching members and serving as each other’s advisory boards.

Members share all sorts of nuts-and-bolts information about financing, equipment, human resources, inputs, and other topics. They also support each other through the hard life events that impact both personal lives and the business.

Lance Woodbury, another Pinion advisor who regularly works with peer groups, says it’s important to find the right match for a successful peer relationship.

“The peers you interact with must have your respect,” he says. “You have to believe their experience has something to teach you.”

At the same time, participants must be willing to honestly share their fears, challenges and mistakes.

“Vulnerability is the key ingredient,” Woodbury notes. “You must be willing to own your weaknesses. Be transparent. Admit you don’t have all the answers. Ask for help. You can’t benefit from a peer if they don’t know what you really need to improve.”

Further, peer-group members must be willing to voice their opinions. This straight talk can often help you see where you might be wrong and how to get back on track.

Good peer-group traits

What makes a good peer group? Woodbury says having common issues and business challenges, not necessarily a shared geography, is important.

Members also should align on mission, vision and goals. The group must agree on its ground rules. These include confidentiality, what gets shared in the program, attendance expectations and types of speakers, whether motivational, educational or from a different industry. Moreover, participants should have compatible personalities. That means people who give and take and keep their egos in check. If you do reach a deep level of sharing with your peers, the benefits are tremendous. Cook says peer-group participants benefit in five basic ways: executive education and training; information sharing; resource sharing; new ideas and “tough love” challenges; and personal support.

You’ll also gain a sense of accountability, adds Woodbury. Group members can point out your blind spots, even hold your feet to the fire so you make tangible progress. You’ll also get honesty, which you might not receive from people who are trying to sell you products or services.

Agricultural peer-group members often point out another benefit—overcoming the sense of isolation that can be found among those who live and work in rural America.

Getting started

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How do you get started with a peer group? If you’re interested in joining a peer group that already exists, ask friends or industry acquaintances in the group if it’s accepting new members. You could also reach out to the group’s facilitator.

If you’re interested in starting a peer group, find three or four people with whom you would like to learn and share business strategies and ideas. Then ask someone to help organize and facilitate it. That could be Cook or Woodbury, a lender, your CPA or someone from cooperative Extension.

Because there are different types of peer groups, Cook recommends interested participants define their goal before choosing a peer group. For example, she points out, are you wanting to benchmark costs and buy together with businesses similar to yours? That implies either an industry specific group, such as a feedlot or dairy, or a regional group so you have the same vendors, yields and costs.

As another example, if you’re seeking new ideas that push you outside your comfort zone, then a group with diverse types of operations may seed that better. Maybe being far out of your geography is important to you because you want to travel and see new areas. Or maybe on-farm tours are important to you, or you’re just looking for good interactions even if they happen off-farm.

Whichever peer group you join, remember it will require your time and personal investment. But meeting regularly with a group of respected business owners to share challenges and discuss solutions can provide the insight and improvement you may not achieve on your own.

“If you commit to meeting and challenging one another,” Woodbury says, “the education and advice you receive will be priceless.”

Editor’s note: Maxson Irsik, a certified public accountant, advises owners of professionally managed agribusinesses and family-owned ranches on ways to achieve their goals. Whether an owner’s goal is to expand and grow the business, discover and leverage core competencies, or protect the current owners’ legacy through careful structuring and estate planning, Max applies his experience working on and running his own family’s farm to find innovative ways to make it a reality. Contact him at [email protected].