Mentorship – you can’t wing it

To help new farmers succeed, mentorship is crucial. But mentoring itself is a skill that must be learned.

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

Farmers are unique in the support they give one another. There is no farmer worth his salt who would not immediately offer help to a new neighbour settling in or fail to give support and assistance to a fellow farmer who suffers a setback.

As a result, mentoring new farmers comes quite naturally. It’s something we grow up with and understand completely. I have yet to find a commercial farmer who does not appreciate the critical importance of correcting the skewed land ownership situation in South Africa – and who is not prepared to mentor new farmers. Yet why do we see so many failed agricultural land reform projects?

In seeking some answers, I came across a study by the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development at the University of Pretoria, entitled ‘Mentorship: a key success factor in sustainable land reform projects in South Africa’.

The writers identify a number of key reasons for the failure of such projects. These can be placed in two broad categories: those outside the control of the new farmer and their mentor, and those within their control.

Recipe for failure
Factors such as a lack of capable community leadership, conflict within the group of new farmers, peer jealousy and pressure from neighbouring farmers and communities, and insufficient finance, infrastructure and equipment are all largely outside the control of new farmers and their mentors.

But other factors were due to problems in the mentorship relationship itself. New farmers complained that mentors came across as paternalistic, that their attitude was akin to a boss-servant relationship, that they seemed never to have enough time for the new farmer and were bad listeners – quick with advice and orders and not really guiding. The result was that the farmers did not respect or trust their mentors – a recipe for failure.

Mentors, on the other hand, complained that new farmers had to be constantly pushed to get anything done, did not implement recommendations, ignored time management, and expected far too much from the mentor – another recipe for failure.

Prepare yourself properly
Informal mentoring of the sort we have all experienced happens by chance, not by design. It’s a natural meeting of minds.
Formal mentoring is another thing entirely. It requires careful preparation by both parties. It really is a no-brainer. To make a success of any occupation, certain competencies are required. It’s the same with becoming a mentor. If you wish to develop and grow the skills of another person, you must understand what you’re up against.

You can’t wing it. You need to have a professional atttude towards mentoring.