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Graduates reap benefits from farm business management program

More than a decade on, farmers who have graduated from one of agriculture’s premier education programs, the Rabobank Executive Development Program, continue to reap the benefits from implementing long-lasting changes to the management of their farming business.

Tailored for progressive farmers to develop and enhance their business management skills, more than 600 farmers from across Australia and New Zealand have graduated from the Executive Development Program since it was launched in 1999.

With 2017 applications now open, Rabobank is calling for other forward-thinking farmers to join their ranks by applying for 2017’s program.

Run over two one-week residential modules – held over consecutive years – the Executive Development Program covers all major aspects of business management including strategic business planning, negotiation, financial management, risk management, communication and innovation.

Rabobank Australia & New Zealand managing director Peter Knoblanche said the program’s focus on the direct application of the learnings back into the farmers’ own business – and the opportunity to network with some of Australia and New Zealand’s most innovative primary producers and business professionals – helped equip farmers with a strategic approach to the running of their business.

“While the skills and knowledge gained from the program can result in immediate changes to farmers’ businesses, it is the longer-term benefits that are clearly apparent in so many past graduates’ farming operations which show just how significant and long-lasting the pay back from the program can be,” he said.

Among some of the first farmers to complete the Executive Development Program – in 2003 and 2004 – Leon and Natalie Bowman have used the learnings to implement significant and ongoing changes to their business.

The Bowmans, who completed the course separately in consecutive years, said their business was at “crossroads” when they attended the program, but it gave them the confidence and ability to steer the future direction of their farming enterprise.

Running an extensive broadacre cropping operation near Esperance in Western Australia, one of the first changes the Bowmans made to their business was to develop a farm business advisory board, after hearing about a similar structure from a fellow course participant.

Consisting of Leon, Natalie and their son Ashleigh, the board – which has now been up and running for 14 years – also includes three independent advisors with farming, agronomy and banking expertise.

Giving the family the framework to step back from the business and look at the big picture, Mr Bowman said the advisory board was used to discuss the big decisions facing the operation such as capital expenditure plans, family succession and future business planning.

Mrs Bowman said while they had made changes to the board make-up and meeting frequency over time, it was still integral to the success of the business which has grown significantly over the past decade to now span 8500 hectares.

The experience and confidence garnered from the Executive Development Program has also seen the Bowmans take on external leadership positions, with Natalie the deputy president of the Esperance Shire Council and Leon heading up the Esperance Organised Primary Producers Co-operative.

Mr Bowman, who attended the Executive Development Program first, used the management project component of the course to develop operating procedure manuals for the business.

The project, completed between the two modules of the course, is designed to give participants the framework to put into practice the skills, tools and ideas from the program.

“Between the first and second module of the program, I developed a series of operating procedure manuals for seeding, harvest, spraying and the operation of our machinery,” he said.

With three full-time staff involved in the business and up to three casuals over harvest, Mr Bowman said the manuals were a valuable reference for staff around the business’ processes, which also had benefits for the operation’s quality assurance program.

Following in her husband’s footsteps on the program a year later, Mrs Bowman said she had been apprehensive about attending “as to this day, I have never driven a tractor”.

“When Leon returned home full of ideas from the program, I was like ‘oh my goodness, what is he on about?’,” she said, “so I thought I would step out of my comfort zone and do it as well.”

Attending on her own, Mrs Bowman said the Executive Development Program proved to be a huge confidence boost as she realised she knew a lot more about their business than she thought and could hold her own “with a bunch of hands-on farming blokes”.

“Running a great business takes a good team, and there is a lot more to farming than ‘driving that tractor’,” she says. “The course gave me the skills to become a valuable member of our team.”

Since graduating from the program, the Bowmans have continued to reconnect with fellow course participants and graduates from other years’ Rabobank Executive Development Programs, through attending alumni programs.

Attending alumni events in northern New South Wales and more recently in Tasmania, the Bowmans said the alumni expanded their networks and reminded them of what they had learned.

“It is like getting the battery charged up again,” Mr Bowman said, “as you see what is possible and how others manage their different farming systems.”

Applications for the 2017 Rabobank Executive Development Program are open until May 26 2017, with applicants accepted from across a range of commodities and geographical locations in Australia and New Zealand.

Held in Sydney, the first module runs from August 13 to 18 2016, with the second module taking place in July 2017.

With strong demand expected for a place on the program, and only 36 farmers accepted in 2017’s intake.

Image: Leon and Natalie Bowman

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