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  • Shane Thomas

10 Findings in 10 Years in the Ag Industry

With it being December it means the closing of another year. 2018 from a western Canadian agriculture perspective was difficult for many, most notably from a farmer perspective. The year had many obstacles thrown in the direction of farmers, but as always, farmers persevered.

From a personal perspective, the end of 2018 marks a notable landmark for myself as it signals the end of my 10th year in the industry; granted I may be stretching a bit since some of those seasons were technically just me as a summer student! With that though, I have reflected a bit on the decade I have been involved in the industry and thought a lot about how I have developed, how the industry has changed and how excited I am for the next decade and beyond.

Here are 10 core things I have learned, not necessarily specific to agronomy as I have been fortunate enough to gain experience in numerous other areas of the industry in the decade as well.

1. Never be afraid to ask questions – When I first started I was hesitant to ask questions as I always felt that I was annoying people, concerned with the thought individuals may think I was questioning their competence or authority, or just outright scared to look stupid. I was lucky in that I have had strong mentors that encouraged learning, curiosity and always worked to answer my questions no matter how whacky they may have been. I encourage everyone to constantly ask questions, ask why, ask how, ask for more information, resources or ask that experienced colleague out for coffee! There is too much knowledge and wisdom within the industry that is getting closer and closer to retirement. We need everyone to be constantly trying to learn so that that gets passed down. On top of this the industry has an influx of products and companies that as agronomists, farmers, industry professionals and beyond need to be questioned so that we can determine if there is a fit, or where there is a fit. This isn’t a specific point/number, but very well could be so I will put it under here, but always continually learn. Asking questions out of genuine curiosity is one of the surest ways of accomplishing that.

2. Have a Plan – I used to look at plans as shackles that constrained potential. I was way off. Plans help us stay organized, identify needs and resources, keep us on track, communicate to others where we are headed and more. The key is to plan and be agile enough to adapt as necessary. Whether it is a crop plan, a plan for the week, or a plan on how to implement and execute the newest business initiative; a plan is the foundation of being not only successful, but efficient with yours and everyone else’s time.

3. Business is Important – One of my favourite sayings is “you can’t have agronomics without economics”. As an agronomist passionate about science when I first came into the industry I thought all there was to agronomy (and farming) was digging deep into things like plant physiology and soil chemistry. It’s unfortunate how many years it took me to realize that is only a piece of the puzzle (I won’t put this as one of the 10, but I have also learned I am a slow learner!). The cross over between agronomy, economics and many other facets of farming and agri business is extremely intimate. They are all interconnected. Improving as an agronomist or agri-business professional, learning some of the basics of business will give a much more holistic view of agriculture and farming. (Note: For younger agronomists and ag professionals check out a basic, yet extremely applicable book like “The Personal MBA” by Josh Kaufman).

4. Be comfortable in the grey area – In school it’s easy to get caught up in the imaginary world of black and white, right and wrong, true of false, or A, B. C or D. This isn’t reality. This may be the one thing I did learn quick, mostly out of just trying to survive in the first couple years!

The real answer to many things? “It depends”. Now, some things are black and white. But I have learned to think of things on a continuum and strived to understand what influences that continuum to make better recommendations to farmers and agronomists or make better decisions. Everyone comes at things from a different angle and the same questions asked to 5 different people will often deliver 6 different answers (economists and agronomists aren’t that different!). The better adept at taking pieces of information and understanding their considerations, and why’s will help all of us crawl through the grey area and ultimately become comfortable within it.

5. Play an Infinite Game, Not a Finite Game – Okay, this may sound a bit off the wall, but really it’s a bigger picture component of thinking about “winning the battle” vs. “winning the war”. The definition:

“Finite games are those instrumental activities - from sports to politics - in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game - there is only one - includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants

I am competitive by nature. In university I would literally strive to be the first one done taking notes when the professor would put up a slide. This came over with me to the industry. I wanted to always have answers. I wanted information. I wanted to be looked at as the expert. Trying to be better than the person next to you does nothing. Looking at things from an industry perspective once I decided I wanted to be a part of a meaningful network, support others and ultimately have a career I could look at in 40 years and be proud of I realized it’s not about having all the answers, it’s not about having more customers than the competitor down the road, it’s about making the industry, people etc better off in the short, medium and long term.

6. Textbooks only get your so far - Most of those that know me know I like to read. I’ve read many textbooks. And I learned a lot. However, there is no replacement for in field experience and talking with those that have been through the agronomic issues, done the work, whatever it may be. Reading and textbooks are unbelievably useful tools, but ensuring they are ancillary to hands on experience and “belly to belly” learning has turned out to be the best formula. The best learning experiences for me were reading about specific scenario’s or situations, then striving to experience that situation in person and then follow up with an expert or textbook opinion again afterwards to really ingrain the learning. This was easiest with agronomy vs. learning on the business end of the spectrum. For example, I remember the first time I read about stripe rust in cereals, it was a July evening and I vowed to find some rust in person the next day. I spent 14 hours in fields that next day, and finally found some. The textbook doesn’t tell you that it makes your pants a brownish-orange or that disease doesn’t ALWAYS move from the bottom of the plant up or that just because durum is less susceptible to rust doesn’t mean it CAN’T get the disease. Only from combining reading and in person experiences can you really understand the entirety of any agronomic, or real life issue.

7. Change is the only constant – I have only been in the industry 10 years. There are people I have ran into that have put in 50 crops or been in the industry 40 years. But as I look back on the short time I realize how different things are even when thinking back to just 5 or 6 years ago. Because of this I have realized how important it is to keep learning and not only that, but looking ahead and being prepared for what’s coming. One of my favourite sayings is “evolution, not revolution” meaning that change is going to happen, but it will happen over time. Being prepared for the evolution has helped me gain exposure to things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see or do otherwise.

8. Be resourceful – It’s not about being the smartest, the most well read or hardest worker. All of those were things I once strived to be. To no avail. There is always someone out there better in all of those areas. But what I have realized is how important it is to be as resourceful as possible.

By that I mean, making the connections between where to go for answers, having tools at your disposal to figure out a problem, networking so you have an expert in every different agronomic area in your phone for answers if needed. It’s impossible to know everything or remember every little thing, but it is possible to build up a “toolkit” that gives you access to whatever you may need.

9. Every year is different – I heard it when I started out, but I figured you put a crop in and it grows, no problems. The variation in what gets thrown at farmers and the industry every year is mind boggling. With that said, the opportunity within this is being able to draw parallels where possible to identify when opportunities may be arising. We always look for the differences between years and situations, but sometimes within the variances it can be beneficial to understand the similarities.

10. People Matter – “Every person knows something you don’t”. It’s amazing the impact people have had on me. Co-workers, friends, bosses, great customers, poor customers and more. Everyone offers a learning opportunity. This is significant. But what’s more is that it’s hard to always understand what is going on within someone’s life and striving to always treat people with respect and empathy no matter the situation has been reinforced over and over to a point that I didn’t expect. I am grateful for the constant reinforcement and hope I can continually improve at treating people with the utmost respect, no matter what.

11. You can’t beat the ag industry – The people, the culture, the opportunities…the industry is second to none. I said 10, but this one deserves to be in here. Growing up I never thought I would end up in the ag industry. My neighbour when I was 17, who had just started her Ag degree at the U of S, said I should consider ag when I graduate. I scoffed at her.

“Who would want to work there?” I thought. In the 10 years since my question has changed to “Why wouldn’t you want to work here?”.

I am very thankful for the opportunities and people I have met in the 10 years. Too many people have had positive influences on my experience in the industry and I can’t imagine ever being elsewhere.

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