Can’t textbook this
You can’t textbook this stuff.
- Where do good facilitators come from?
- The key to successful facilitation
- Hire the best manager you can find
- Good cooperatives grow slowly
- You have to be a good agent before you can be a good facilitator.
- You gotta just jump in.
When asked for his theory of training agents in organizing and leadership, “You can’t textbook this stuff, I don’t believe,“ says Bill Green. With his 33 years in Extension, Bill’s been a mentor for numerous young agents. He’s interested in how experienced agents can help novices to identify good opportunities for new enterprises, and build the skills to facilitate their development. The challenge to this training is that an agent’s interest and involvement are usually stimulated by personal relationships and deep understanding of one’s community.
Because each community, group, and enterprise is different, agents must function uniquely in every case. Sometimes the agent is a planner, sometimes a referee, problem-solver, technical resource, objective evaluator, etc.
is often the ability to play various roles in a group endeavor based on the group’s particular feelings, experiences, and dynamics. To Bill, these affective aspects are so critical that generic enterprise models are of little use to local groups. He worries that there’s too much pressure for agents to be involved in “big splashy programs“ that are imported to an area without regard for these particulars. Good ideas originate within the community, or are adapted by a community through local grassroots energy.
It’s that energy that fueled the recent creation of the Purchase Area Aquaculture Cooperative (PAAC) in Tri City, Kentucky. PAAC is a nine-county initiative centered on a 70-acre catfish processing plant that Bill and various other county agents were instrumental in establishing. Construction of the 2,400 square-foot building and an adjoining hatchery and fingerling facility began in the summer of 2000, with the help of a KDA Value-Added Grant and stock purchased by grower-members. This project, says Bill, is exactly what state tobacco settlement funds should be applied to: creating enterprises that are open to a variety of producers and that provide opportunities for them to add value and keep profits. The cooperative now has 42 stockholders with an average 5-8 acres of fishponds each, and has the capacity to handle at least twice that volume.
Bill credits John Murdock and seven or eight other “core members“ with generating both producer interest and outside support, conducting the research, and locating necessary resources. For several years, various people came and went as ideas and plans were discussed, but Bill traces the active start of the plant development to John’s involvement. Despite the level of interest, “people could have talked all day and it never would have happened,“ unless a group of leaders emerged. John eventually became the president of the six-member Board of Directors. “Fish processing is a comparatively easy industry,“ says Bill, “but there’s still an incomprehensible amount of stuff to do.“ While creating a cooperative organization, buying land, building a new facility, and marketing a new product might seem impossibly daunting to some, the “core“ was able to effectively manage the process.
The group hired Jesse Lopez to act as the General Manager and Plant Manager until opening, when a separate Plant Manager would be brought on. Jesse had managed a hops processing cooperative in Washington State, and would be in charge of overseeing the plant construction, equipment purchasing, and production planning. He visited several plants of different sizes in Mississippi, working at one for three days in each of the production jobs, and also consulted with aquaculture and food technology experts from Mississippi State. Hiring skilled management was a crucial step in gaining the confidence of the members; Bill says cooperatives got a bad name largely because “an out-of-work nephew“ would be put in charge. Others acquired so much superfluous administration that they became top-heavy and ineffective, and members saw their investments swallowed by salaries.
The group also exercised this professionalism and sensitivity when handling community relations. Fish hatcheries and plants are known to smell and developers usually contend with landowner opposition. The group was careful to locate the plant a substantial distance from nearby residences, and to include the public in opening events. Bill says that it made a tremendous difference that group leaders had good
connections, high profiles, and positive reputations in their communities.
Bill points out a little shack a few miles out on the road. “They go through 1500 pounds of catfish a week,“ he says, “They‘re only open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, but people come from 50 miles around.“ The restaurant owner had agreed to buy from the co-op; he’d like to have fresh fish rather than the frozen he was buying from a national distributor, and besides, “small businesses don’t like the ‘Wal-Mart-ing’ of America either.” The group conducted a survey of local restaurants, most of which indicated that they would prefer to source fresh local fish. PAAC can supply fresh fish for about the same price most national distributors can supply frozen, but they have no intention of engaging in a price war. “These producers are good business people,“ says Bill, “they’re not going to go head-to-head with the big guys.“
Bill thinks that raising catfish is a good opportunity for several groups of growers: tobacco growers cutting their production, row crop growers with low-production soil or drainage problems, grain farmers looking for local markets (the plant will buy 750,000 bushels of feed annually), and poultry producers who aren’t fully utilizing their land or time. Catfish can provide a good supplementary source of income from a few acres, and rather than raising a price-vulnerable commodity, grower-members maintain control of pricing.
Although some of the members were already raising catfish for the live-haul industry, most were new to the business. Extension distributed a publication introducing catfish production to prospective growers, explaining start-up requirements, processing standards, scheduling, nutrition, and other factors that would help them assess whether it was right for them. According to Bill, 250 books were distributed, which means over 200 interested farmers decided not to pursue the opportunity initially. He’s glad that a limited number of farmers got involved, because the aim of the co-op is to grow slowly, perfecting operations at successive levels of production before expanding. Also, the business is not for everyone; although it’s a flexible, fairly low-investment enterprise, the co-op is a start-up operation and the local market is still somewhat untested. Those in high-risk situations, cautions Bill, might not want to “bet their farm, or their retirement“ on it. “We’re definitely not trying to sell everybody.“
Just as the co-op wants to hit a 50-member plateau before expanding further, producers should plan to start small. The co-op is set up to handle small and medium-size growers; if a producer‘s just starting out in catfish, he can put 5-8 acres into production, learn the on-farm operation and work with the co-op a while before putting another 10 acres in. Unlike poultry contracts that require a minimum of ten buildings of a certain capacity, the co-op strives to accommodate smaller producers.
Rural people are naturally wary of new enterprise ideas; look at the history of coal and timber, says Bill, and it’s easy to understand why. Many programs that have promised “development,” have done nothing but further marginalize the rural people that were supposedly their beneficiaries. Advocates of new enterprises, be they experts or outsiders or both, are often the objects of suspicion or resistance. Bill remembers his early days as an agent, when he was “tested“ and “tried by fire“ on some of his first farm visits and in meetings. Locals not only wanted to see how much he knew, but to let him know that no matter how much it was, he was still a newcomer and wasn’t due the confidence or respect he might expect.
After three decades, he’s racked up some porch time and feels a strong sense of trust has built up in his clientele. Trust creates greater responsibility though: “It’s easy for Extension to say it’s a good idea, but you’re not taking the risk.“ An experienced agent might develop followers that are too trusting, or willing to defer to his opinion. A good agent should always encourage an individual to conduct his own valuation and to make decisions independently.
Although fiats handed down from government agencies are none too popular with farmers, Bill thinks that Extension is in a unique position to get results through diplomacy. Water quality plans were a source of contention in Graves County, where farmers were intimidated by the requirements and resented NRCS for what seemed like criticism of their farm management practices. Extension was able to smooth things over by explaining the paperwork and showing farmers that implementing the plans was not as imposing as it looked. The trick with any new program or project is to break it down into manageable pieces, Bill says, “get enough inches laid end to end, and you’ve got a mile.“
Agents are used to being sources of production advice might not feel qualified to provide the processing and marketing assistance that farmers need to become local vertical integrators. Rather than draw on research, technical programs, or specialized materials, agents have had to rely on observation and informal networking to develop their skills in assisting LOVA enterprises. “It’s a learning process for [the agent] too,“ Bill says, “you don’t know until you get in there and do it.“ The leaders of PAAC and similar ventures have largely had to conduct their own research, assess different operations, and compare business structures and marketing systems themselves. Involvement in these entrepreneurial efforts has been the major tool for agents to develop their skills. It is the nature of innovation to precede the systems that understand, encourage, and stimulate it further, but Bill does think research, education, programs, and materials need to be directed to this area. Then, agents would have a better framework for technical assistance that could be integrated with hands-on learning, mentorship, andrelationship- and experience-driven facilitation.