The gap created by the demise of the control boards and government extension services has been filled by numerous private sector advisors covering every possible aspect of agriculture, and doing it far better than it was ever done by paid officials in the past.
I’ve heard of consultants being used in pest and disease control, animal and plant nutrition, irrigation design and application, labour law, management and strategy, marketing, corporate governance, soil preparation, pastures, new varieties and rootstocks, not to mention the ubiquitous need by all farmers for accounting services and legal advice.
In the ‘old days’, many of these services were provided at no direct cost to the farmer, who carried little or no responsibility for managing them. You either took the advice provided or you didn’t. It cost you nothing, so why worry?
Today, the first decision to be made is whether the advice is needed at all – and it’s one that often marks the distinction between the successful and the struggling farmer.
Once past this hurdle, the important next step is to decide where to look for advice. All too often the decision is based on word-of-mouth from a neighbour, or casual talk around a braai. But this is not necessarily a good thing. You need to search for the best consultant available, and it may not be the one used by the neighbouring farmer. Do your homework and study the field thoroughly.
Draw up a shortlist of possible consultants, and check references before you meet with them, just as you would if you were appointing any employee.
Be well prepared for the interviews
By the time you meet with the consultants selected, you’ll know they have the qualifications and experience you’re looking for.
Now you need to get a feel for the chemistry between the two of you. Will you be able to work together?
Go to the meeting well prepared to brief the consultant on what you require and expect to achieve. In my consulting career, I’ve often found this step one of the most frustrating, because all too often the client doesn’t really know what he or she wants!
If it’s a clear technical issue such as a leaf and soil analysis and advice on fertilisation, there’s no problem. But if direction is required on strategic direction or management in its wider sense, confusion often reigns supreme.
Before you interview your prospective consultants, put pen to paper and provide an outline of what you’re looking for and when. Create a time-line, in other words – and be realistic about it. Every time I’m approached to give someone assistance, and am told it’s ‘urgent’, I immediately know that this person’s own planning is behind schedule.
The contract, and getting the best out of the person
Once you’ve made the decision, formalise the appointment in writing. Spell out your expectations in detail. Cover the payment terms and duration of the service contract and notice period if either of you wishes to withdraw.
Include in your letter of appointment details such as the period in the season when you want the consultant’s services and the meetings that you would like to have. Be clear if you want a written report after each visit.
Now, just as you would with any employee, manage your consultant. It’s not only cold, clinical advice you’re looking for. You want powers of observation, analytical skill, creativity, logical thinking, sound judgement, perseverance, communication and collaborative skills, to mention just a few.
You’ll never get all these added-value attributes unless you bring to bear all the management skills you have.