Business lessons learned from growing up on a farm

In interviews and even general conversations with colleagues and friends, I often reference my farming background as the foundations of my business career.

Being a farmer is a lot like being in business; things can go your way, the sun shines, you harvest the returns and ,often , the better your prepare for eventualities the likelihood of earning a decent living goes up.

Sales

My learning started from a very young age going to cattle and sheep auctions or martsas they are commonly known, giving an insight into how the business side of farming works. If you want to learn about the psychology of sales and witness business being conducted at an eye watering pace, visit a mart.

Farmers will gather around a ring where the animals are presented but if you watch closely very few are watching the animal – they are watching each other. I can remember as a kid watching this with amazement as farmers communicated through some sort of code – a wink and a nod meant you can buy this animal I won’t bid against you, an index finger waved in a circle at the auctioneer meant keep the bids coming I’m buying this one no matter the cost. It was hard to keep up as the auctioneer rattled through the bids with a barely audible microphone.

A Day’s Pay for a Day’s Work

Farming is a profession where your day ends when the job is done- not when you are done. The vast majority of farmers are their own boss which can bring a great sense of pride but also a burden that means there is no guarantee they will earn a decent living. I know of farmers who are consistently not generating enough money but will never give up their profession. I enjoy recalling a conversation with an elderly farmer when discussing money and farming – “How do you make 1 million euro farming?” he asked, “Start with 2 million euro and work very hard!”

This has stuck with me throughout my career and has meant not taking anything for granted when it comes to my career and earning a living.

Diversifying Business

One of the reasons I was interested in marketing from a young age was working in our family business. A lot of farmers supplement their income with what serial entrepreneur, Gary Vaynerchuck has coined “side hustles”. For my family this side hustle was purchasing sheep wool from farmers around our locality, grading it and readying it for export to the UK, China and India. At age 17, I took over the running of the operation with a goal of maximising the return from our 300 customer base.

I learned some very hard lessons in this business. I can remember one case where I was so fixated with keeping a new customer happy that I didn’t realise there was a concrete block in the bottom of the bag of wool (we bought the wool based on weight). Looking back on it I can recall the customer being somewhat eager to get going and not in the mood for small talk. A lesson my father taught me from a young age came flooding back to me- “Judge the person, not the product”.

Word of Mouth is Gold

In the family business my marketing options were limited – ads in local newspapers, posters on telephone poles and leaving business cards at marts were my tactics. I soon found that when asking customers how they found my business it was almost always the same – through another farmer. In modern business, I compare this to customer references as the premise is the same – if you provide your customers with an excellent experience they will tell their peers and in turn results in new customers coming to your business.

It has only been on reflection that I have realised how growing up on a farm has impacted positively on my business career – lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom or boardroom are often the most valuable.

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