Published Dec 22, 2015

2016 Annual Conference Preview: Q&A with Richard Wiswall, Cate Farm

By Liz Kolbe

Q: What’s the best thing about going on vacation in Mexico?
A: A PFI staffer calling to interview you about the 2016 Annual Conference!

PFI communications specialist Tamsyn Jones caught up with Richard Wiswall, who owns and operates Cate Farm in Vermont with his wife, Sally Colman. Richard will be busy at the 2016 PFI Annual Conference – he’s leading three sessions and will be joining some beginning farmers for pizza, afterward.

Richard is well known not only for producing great vegetables, but as a savvy farm business consultant and author of the book The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook. For more about his workshops at the Annual Conference, jump over to the Conference webpage or straight to the Conference brochure (ps, registration is open). For an insider scoop on his thoughts about financial management and farm mentorships, read on!

TJ: What does it mean to be a “financially literate” farmer — and why do you think many farmers struggle with or avoid this?

RW: I don’t know a single farmer who got into farming because he wanted to learn about business. At some point, they realize that they have to pay attention to the business. It’s maybe not their first couple of years, but they eventually realize they have to pay attention to the financial side of things.

People need business skills, and if they don’t have those skills won’t do a great job at running a business. You can be the best farmer, marketer or innovator – but if you can’t keep your business afloat financially, you won’t succeed. Your farm is a business, and you need to treat it as such.

TJ: So it sounds like being knowledgeable about farming and being knowledgeable about finances can be two entirely separate skills.

RW: People think they can be great farmers, but you can have great farmers who just fail because don’t pay attention to where they need to.

It’s not that people don’t want to learn; they’re farming for other reasons – love of working the soil, producing food, etc. – and then they realize they have to learn about the financial side. I want to shorten that learning curve and help them get up to speed.

You don’t have to be a micro-economist, but you need to pay attention to where the money comes and goes.

TJ: Are there certain trends you have observed from your experience working to educate other farmers – such as particular problem areas, or age groups that are less financially literate?

RW: Younger people certainly, or people just starting out farming – including middle-aged beginning farmers – can end up needing more help. I’ve had people in my workshops who’ve been farming longer than me – or are older than me, but realized they needed more [business management] experience.

People who’ve had a previous career have been around the block a few times, and people who are at the end of their working career life tend to be more well-situated to pick up a farm, because they know more about business.

TJ: For some farmers, it seems the  first hurdle is that they think they’re not great with numbers or the business end of things. What advice might you give to those people?

RW: Some people have a knee-jerk reaction against business. They think it’s beneath them, or they resent it. But regardless of how they feel about it, they need it.

But a lot of times, it’s office management skills they need help with, which aren’t really taught anywhere: how to set up an office, how to collect money so you’re not losing money, how to set up billing. Also time management skills, where people feel overwhelmed about getting things done. That’s where I talk about strategies like creating weekly schedules.

TJ: That’s interesting – that reminds me how I was taught in middle school how to make out a check, but I was never taught other business skills, such as those you just described.

RW: For the most part, that’s parental. If your parents don’t teach you how to balance a checkbook, no one else will.

If you’re not great with numbers or are hesitant about it, it’s nice to have a coach – and there are plenty of coaches out there, from local organizations (like PFI) to the Small Business Development Association, or others.

Basically, ask for help. You don’t have to pay a bookkeeper. You can just get help getting started. Or maybe you do hire a bookkeeper once a year, just to make sure you’re on track – and then that’s just one of the expenses of maintaining your farm.

TJ: Let’s talk about mentoring. Are there specific challenges or misconceptions experienced farmers have about what’s involved with being a good mentor? I would imagine that some farmers might think there’s not much to it, so long as they have the knowledge to share.

RW: Just because you’re an experienced farmer doesn’t make you a good mentor. Just understanding some of the unsaid things is important. There are unspoken dynamics, body language, listening skills. There’s a dynamic from the outset, where the person wanting help is looking for hope, a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel. And that mentor – whether they know it or not – is that source of hope.

There is an expectation that the mentor can hopefully navigate a way forward. Just understanding that dynamic is one of the biggest things.

TJ: What are some other skills needed to be a good mentor?

RW: You need to be able to listen well, not just railroad your own beliefs. Try to know where people are coming from. Also, it’s okay for the mentor to give homework – a lot of times the mentee wants to do it! It’s just a matter of someone asking them.

A mentor helps the mentee be accountable. A lot of mentees are shy, because they’re paired with someone who’s experienced, so they’re afraid to ask questions. It’s important for the mentor to try to understand that position.

A mentor is someone who shares inspiration and compassion, as well as knowledge.

There’s also body dynamics. For instance, it’s better to sit at 90 degrees to the mentee, and don’t have a laptop open as a barrier between you and mentee. Turn off your cell phone – there’s no reason to be interrupted for anything.

Other issues are things like simple questions of billing – how do you get billed, if you’re getting paid by an organization like PFI? There’s lots of small points like that that we’ll cover in the workshop.

TJ: See you then!