Dividends From TEPAP

Design Your Own Graduate Education

Jeremy Jack (left) and Andrew Miller (third from right) formed a peer group with TEPAP classmates after finishing the two-year course. They now meet twice a year on each other's farms to review goals and critique their businesses. In between visits, they stay in touch by regular emails. (DTN photo by Marcia Taylor)

AUSTIN, Texas (DTN) -- Kim Moen of North Dakota inherited day-to-day management of a 7,000 acre farm after her brother died in a car accident in 2009. Sure, she had been employed as the city manager and economic developer of Harvey, North Dakota, for 22 years, managed 15 employees and dealt with the politics of a city council. But that off-farm experience hadn't fully prepared her for the duties of an owner-manager with a diverse cropping operation, subject to extreme weather and marketing risks. Her 79-year-old father was there to guide her, but she needed to boost her confidence and farm business skills if she wanted to make a go of the business solo.

She knew bookkeeping and learned how to run heavy equipment. "But I felt like a lot of the farming thing was over my head," she said.

In 2009, Jeremy Jack of Belzoni, Mississippi, had just earned a master's degree in economics from Mississippi State, but suddenly was thrown on the management fast-track: His dad, Willard, was diagnosed with cancer and wanted to insure he had time to guide Jeremy through what he then thought might be a five-year succession.

For both Moen and Jack, scholarships to TEPAP -- the Executive Program for Agricultural Producers -- provided the boost needed to mature in leadership roles. Not only did TEPAP instructors shed light on how large-scale commercial farms of tomorrow should be organized, but the course connected them with successful and ambitious classmates from across North America. About 70% of TEPAP attendees run farms with sales of $2 million and up; a few run farm ventures with revenues over $50 million.

When a 25-year-old beginning Minnesota grain farmer met one of Frito-Lay's largest potato growers at TEPAP, he noticed that family members used the phrase "land partners" to refer to their farm landlords. It was an attitudinal shift he has since used to show respect and to help attract more rental acres in his highly competitive, cash rent neighborhood.

Rubbing shoulders with agriculture's high-octane entrepreneurs "added gas to our operation," Jeremy Jack agreed. Other TEPAP grads describe the experience as "a mental makeover" that gave them the confidence to implement change or leap into new enterprises.

Inspired by the experience, Jeremy organized a peer group of TEPAP farmers from seven states that still meets twice a year to share opportunities and critique each other's businesses. Since 2009, the Jacks have grown from 3,000 acres to more than 11,000 acres and lured Jeremy's sister, her husband and Jeremy's wife back to farm full-time. Willard remains healthy and serves as chairman of the board.

Moen joined a "cross border" peer group of her 2016 TEPAP classmates -- four Canadians and seven from North Dakota and Minnesota -- who already have met several times this year and invite outside speakers for in-depth education. She gained insights from a recent Farm Service Agency speaker and is confident that her peer members can be a valuable sounding board on farm programs and marketing. Natural optimists, they held one of their first meetings in Cando (pronounced Can-Do), North Dakota.

BEATING LONELINESS

Running a family business can be a lonely experience, where it's hard to know how your peers handle tough situations or how your practices stack up to competitors. TEPAP, a Texas A&M sponsored program, counteracts that isolation by drawing approximately 200 producers to a resort in Austin for one-week management sessions each January. (TEPAP 1 covers basics in family business, finance and employee management; TEPAP 2 the following year delves into specifics like business transfer and succession, negotiation and strategic planning). Nearly nine out of 10 past attendees give their TEPAP education "excellent" or "very good" ratings, a high mark since tuition runs $4,700 per week.

"Over the years, the program has evolved to address whatever growth stage or business cycle you're in," said Mark Welch, the Texas A&M economist who directs TEPAP. "Courses on management and succession are a big part, but it's also about preparation for growth or expansion."

For example, Dick Wittman, an Idaho farmer and a TEPAP finance instructor, challenges students to professionalize their business practices, like hiring a board of directors, formalizing compensation plans, anticipating partner buyouts and doing a better job of accrual accounting.

"If you know what you don't know, you need training," Wittman quips. "If you don't know what you don't know, you need counseling."

Splurging in a tough year might just be the salve you need to restore your optimism about U.S. agriculture. Andrew Miller, one of Jack's 2009 TEPAP classmates, found the 2008 crop year especially trying. His father had died while he was a junior in college. With no land base, Miller had worked as a hired manager for two elderly farmers near Odem, Texas. He wanted to convert to a custom farming business so he could build equity and one day own his operation. His TEPAP experience reminded him there were opportunities ahead, prodding him to stick around for some of his region's banner cotton and sorghum years from 2010-2015. By the time he turned 30, Miller had to revise many of his lifetime goals, because he had achieved them prematurely.

EDITOR'S NOTE: DTN/The Progressive Farmer offers two $2,350 TEPAP scholarships to help young farmers find their footing. This year's deadline for application is October 15. Consider applying. For more information, go to http://tepap.tamu.edu/…

Marcia Taylor can be reached at Marcia.taylor@dtn.com

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