• Shane Thomas

4 Essential Soft Skills For Success in the Ag Industry

Updated: Sep 2, 2019

When it comes to the agriculture industry we often talk about agronomic sciences, economic and market knowledge, tech related knowledge or machinery and mechanics backgrounds. These are core hard skills necessary to being successful and moving the industry forward, no doubt about it. But are there other skills that don’t get talked about as often within the ag industry (or other industries) that can progress farmers and professionals in the industry even farther? I’d suggest there is. Soft skills.

Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character or personality traits, attitudes, career attributes, social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients, among others, that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills. The emphasis needs to be on complementing the hard skills. We all know exceptionally smart people that never reach their potential because they don’t have “it”; the ‘”it” being the ability to communicate, build relationships, overcome challenges, lead a team or champion a vision.

In university and college there is very little mention or emphasis on these skills, outside of some business degree routes. Coming into agriculture from most other university majors would mean a heavy emphasis on the technical and hard skills. These are still necessary, don’t get me wrong. But they miss the optimal. Soft skills are necessary to amplify hard skills and all other areas of an individual.

These skills aren’t always innate. They need to be developed, built, and enhanced. They need to be understood and then focused on, just like learning the technicals of an economic chart, or the physiology of a plant. I understand there is often training available, but it pales in comparison to the emphasis of the hard skills.

So what soft skills are important to be developed in agriculture and how?

There are many, but here are four I deem exceptionally important:

1. Curiosity – Defined as: a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in humans. Curiosity is heavily associated with all aspects of human development, in which derives the process of learning and desire to acquire knowledge and skill.

It is the desire to know more, learn more and understand “why” and “how come”. It enables creativity and the ability to explain the world around us. In agriculture, this is exceptionally important because we are dealing with vast amounts of information and intertwined variables that are necessary to explain what is happening, or may happen.

2. Embracing of Complexity/Critical Thinking – Building off of curiosity we need to be able to synthesize and interpret the information and intel that curiosity is bringing in to us. As farmers and ag professionals it is tackling complexity head on and being able to think through the information we have coming at us. This has always been important, but is more important as we head into 2020 and beyond than it has ever been before with rapid change and information overload happening regularly. Determining what is the most important, how to prioritize, why specific components are the most important and determining a path through is a skill necessary for the ag industry.

3. Adaptability – Defined as “an ability or willingness to change in order to suit different conditions”. The ability to adapt and be agile is exceptionally important in times of rapid change, and times are changing fast! The longer we do something, say make a fertility recommendation, the more hardened off we become to other ways of doing it. Whether that is in how we scout a field or in how we fill the high clearance sprayer. Sticking with what works is fine, but asking whether it is the optimal way of doing something or if you are incorporating every tool possible to achieve a better outcome needs to be considered to ensure evolution is happening. This is especially true if new information is coming to light. The old saying is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, I think the new saying should be “if it ain’t broke, find a way to improve it anyways”. Exploring options is better in the long run than exploiting current approach.

4. Resourcefulness – Defined as “the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties”. Being able to find unique ways to alleviate problems or identify better outcomes it a constant necessity in agriculture. Unforeseen issues come up constantly, and having the wherewithal to identify the issue and deploy a tool or find a way around it in short order can be the difference between a successful harvest or not, or a farm customer get the insight they need to make an informed decision. Making a game plan when the stakes are high and constraints are tight (eg: budgets) is the sort of skill set that will differentiate anyone in their career or business.

How do you cultivate these soft skills?


- Always ask questions, specifically, variations of why, how come, or what would need to be different for this to change the outcome.

- Consume a broad array of information – Reading typical agriculture based media is great, but reading the MIT Tech Review, or Harvard Business Review or a biology journal article may provide some insight you wouldn’t typically stumble on.

Critical Thinking/Embracing Complexity

- Research and challenge what you think you know. Find disconfirming evidence to what you already think is accurate and understand the other side of the argument.

- Break down scenarios into smaller pieces and assess on a micro scale vs. macro level and then build back up.


- Ask “what if scenario’s” to yourself. Agility and ability to adapt stems from being able to consider unique outcomes and a propensity to visualize.

- Other considerations to increase adaptability come from being curious and having a broad understanding + the ability to explore unique options.


- Identify technology and online tools to be able to have access to an array of different options that will satisfy any need for you or customers or co workers.

- Create a network of resources to ask questions to or bounce ideas around with

Practice all of these, every day!

You’ll notice all of these are uniquely intertwined. In the same way hard skills are intertwined like biology and chemistry skills when it comes to soil, soft sills are similar. These soft skills can be the difference maker for an individual on a farm, in small business or a large corporation to set themselves apart and achieve disproportionate success individually, or as part of a team within their desired endeavors.

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