Training trainers for the Agricultural Sector
“The times they are a’changing,” sings the well known song and certainly the training and learning needs in the Agricultural sector are in the midst of a changing environment. No longer is it enough for extension officers to go around and visit and offer their suggestions as to how to improve this or that, or suggest trying some new method, crop or variety.
A whole new crop (excuse the pun) of trainers are needed, they need to be motivated and entrepreneurial and be people who can understand the cycle of business.
These are not the kind of people that have traditionally been produced by agricultural colleges, or grown up on the farm and been groomed by the previous generation to take over.
What are needed are trainers who can lead learners through the fog of layers of complication to see the big picture as if looking down on a map, a helicopter view that enables learners to see the whole puzzle, not just the closest pieces.
Nowadays, each decision needs to be set in the full context of the growing environment, the regional idiosyncrasies of weather, soil and potential and the market environment of what customers or intermediaries are calling for.
If customers want seedless grapes, it is no use saying that we have always produced these grapes and people have always bought them so we see no need to change. This type of isolated thinking has lead to many agricultural enterprises suddenly finding themselves with a glut of products that nobody wants.
So what is the trainer of today in the agricultural sector expected to be?
A visionary that can see into the future and predict what trends will impact on the farming operation.
A gymnast who can coach the learners to be able to do back flips if necessary to meet the rapidly changing whims and moods of the market.
A coach, urging the team on to self-confidence in their interactions with their suppliers and their markets.
A mentor who can provide sage wisdom when plans have not worked out quite as expected.
A Big Picture thinker who can inspire learners to see how their part in the agricultural process fits into the whole picture.
Agricultural enterprises need to be entirely more nimble than they were in the past. Today’s winner can very quickly become tomorrow’s lame duck.
The mindset needs to change from one where agriculture was seen as solid, stable and long term, like an elephant, to fresh thinking that sees agriculture as a chameleon that rapidly needs to change colour so as to be able to survive in a range of environments that can quickly change.
Think about it like this. You are given a piece of land and told that you will be expected to produce an export crop within a few years. All the finance you need is in place. Now you have to grow your work team. You can have any training you need. What will you ask for? Will an extension officer and a few tractor maintenance courses be all you need? I don’t think so! Think about it!
The product has not changed so much as the market’s expectations of response and adaptability. The market is relentless in having its needs met and will not wait for what it sees as slow and ponderous responses to its insatiable needs. The market screams “Give us what we want now or we will find someone else who will!” History and reliability of long term suppliers are now suddenly less important than being able to react quickly and change your offering to be hyper responsive to whims and fancies.
The trainer’s focus needs to shift from turning out solid and reliable skilled workers for the sector to providing quick response thinkers who can keep up with the times and gear up to change their offering rapidly and without a thousand words muttered about how this is not the way things used to, or ought to be done.
Training needs to happen not only at the traditional level of skilling the workers to do the job better, but rather at the level of the whole enterprise where the whole team, from top management to labour see themselves as important cogs in a finely tuned machine. The team needs to grow in confidence in its identity and purpose so that they are all working towards the same goals. There needs to be much less of “do this because……!” and much more of “be brave enough to question why………!” If this kind of thinking can be encouraged, farms can begin to see themselves as important and thinking players in an agricultural value chain that is attuned to the needs of the market.
This new approach is particularly important as the markets are looking for new supply lines, especially ones that are majority black owned. The AgriBEE process will certainly favour emerging black owned and managed enterprises, but that will only get a foot in the door. Long term relationships will only be developed with those enterprises that can show themselves to be wide awake, quick on their feet, and responsive to market needs.
Where will these trainers be trained? Can Agricultural colleges reinvent themselves into the kinds of institutions that are going to be needed? Perhaps some inspirational leaders from the business community need to be lured to add value to the Agricultural sector. The required skill set certainly paces much more emphasis on the WHY and WHAT IF rather than the traditional focus on WHAT to do and HOW TO do it well.
The future of training in agriculture is going to be a very interesting growth industry. The courses and trainers are going to be drawn from a wide range of multidisciplinary sources. Those who are able to meet these new training needs will be well set for the future.