11 February 2013

The Curse of Diversification

When tough times come for farmers, efficiency becomes even more critical. There’s a very valid business and time-management principle you might like to consider if increased effectiveness and profitability interest you.

A general principle in any business is to maintain focus – on your core business, the work in hand, the top clients, the processes that will bring the best returns … we could go on. When we’re working on a desk project, shift other work out of eye range – it’s a distraction. If a sales person is spread too thin with their sales territory they might do okay, but chances are high that they won’t do a really outstanding job for any individual client. When we studied for school or university exams, the best results came when we pushed all distractions aside, hunkered down and applied ourselves single-mindedly.

In Jim Collins’ excellent book ‘Good to Great’ (one of the best business books I’ve ever read, and very easy to read) he recommends three factors that all must overlap for true business success: ‘What can we be best in the world at?’, ‘What are we deeply passionate about?’ and ‘What drives our economic engine?’ If that’s not about focus I don’t know what is!

So how does this apply to farming? Flick the calendar back to the small farms after the First World War, and even after the Depression. Many of them carried a diverse range of stock. Part of the thinking was ‘we mustn’t put all our eggs in one basket.’ When we consider the times, that wisdom was very logical and appropriate – then. However, we’re in a different situation now. Over the years farms have become bigger, income streams have consolidated, and wise agriculturists seek competitive advantages. For example, these days we see large diary operations such as Canterbury-based Synlait with multiple farms in their consortium, economies of scale with a central administration office, and just one of their farms putting 3,000 cows a day through one shed. Not everyone wants to farm that way, but what can we all learn from the thinking?

Look at a typical sheep and beef farm with all its different classes of stock, and even sub-categories within each class – everything that’s different needs slightly different handling, often different paddocks, and even if it’s not much, each category needs different thinking. From the prime stock ready for the fat stock buyer, the young stock needing the best feed, the breeding stock at different stages (if you’ve staggered the breeding dates), right through to the hospital mob and the dog-tucker flock – all require different management, and a dedicated quota of time.

Instead of saying, ‘I’ve always done it this way’ or ‘This is the best way’, what would happen if you were to reshuffle the deck of possibilities and deal out some different combinations. Perhaps you could ask yourself: ‘What would my farm business look like if I reduced one or more stock classes?’; ‘Is there anyone else who can take responsibility (either on- or off-farm) for some of my lines of stock?’; ‘What is my land best suited to?’; ‘Are there any activities I struggle with and can either eliminate or delegate?’; ‘What would be the benefits to me and my family of passing on those activities?’

Brian Tracy, well-known Canadian business educator on life, tells in one of his books about how unsuccessful his life used to be. He was really excited and passionate about his work but it just didn’t seem to flourish. He knew he had good product. He knew people wanted it. But the money wasn’t there. Finally he realised that he was trying to be all things to all men, trying to keep a lot of diverse balls in the air and consequently achieving little.

When you’re quite good at a number of things, it’s very tempting to try and keep all those pots boiling. We don’t want to miss good opportunities. We think it’s important to be flexible. In a farming context, if beef is down one year, sheep or wool might be up. And of course, mixed grazing has pasture management benefits. Most of us have been raised on this concept of keeping the options open. But look around you. Who are the really successful farmers, the ones who make the most money? It will rarely be the ones who dodge from pillar to post. Such folk haven’t got the headspace to drill down to pay dirt in any one area. They’re typically generalists, not specialists. Look at other industries. For example, in the medical field, who gets the hefty fees?

You might like to try questions like: ‘What would it look like if …?’ or ‘How can … be done?’. It’s easier to say ‘It can’t be done’ but new ideas don’t come from that kind of thinking. Innovation comes from brainstorming, from asking questions in different ways, from back-to-front thinking: success comes from solid focus on a small number of outcomes.





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