Howard Doster  February 19, 2013

What fun to now reflect on so many good times we’ve had, and continue to have, in the various ways Barbara, my wife, and I have served as peer couple coaches.  As you read our experiences, note what we’ve learned.  We now look forward to what we’ll learn, perhaps with you, in our new serious 4-H farm management program for HS kids and their parents who crop farm.

Our First Two Couples

We introduced our first two peer couples to each other in 1975.  One was a young Indiana couple, then farming near us.  They were recent Purdue grads.  She was the family income provider, teaching school.  When his ag business job didn’t work out, he looked for alternatives, including renting a nearby farm with buildings so poor that no one lived there, and the farm manager could find no one who would raise hogs there.  After being turned down twice, they finally got an FHA loan, and rented the 200 acres of good land.  Instead of buying two groups of 20 gilts as their loan called for, they bought three groups, and soon had pigs everywhere.   When he showed the owner his plans for a hog building and offered to construct it if she bought the materials, she looked at her farm manager who nodded, and that building was the first of many.

He was one of the nine non-traditional students who joined with nine undergrads to enroll in a new Purdue farm management “Business Plan” class started by John Kadlec in 1971.  I helped him teach the first class on Tuesday/Thursday evenings the first 10 weeks of spring semester.  We had no traditional lectures.  Instead, the students focused on preparing and presenting their plan to their peers, and we coached them.  As former professional farm managers, John and I were already experienced coaches.  I’m still an accredited farm manager and an accredited agricultural consultant.

As the class size expanded, we each taught a section, and sometimes, two sections.  I soon called mine the “How to go home and start farming with dad class”, and I added a “Farming Together Winter Weekend Workshop” for parents to learn what their kids were learning/doing/teaching.  I taught that class for thirty years, and it’s still going.  Learning that the workshop was discontinued this year motivated Barbara and me to start our serious 4-H farm management program now.

The other couple lived south of Columbus, Ohio.  I had known him in college, although we were in different fraternities. They had also married while still in college.  He borrowed used machinery from his dad’s farm equipment dealership to start farming.  He and an employee were no-till farming 1300 acres when he attended the first Purdue Top Farmer Crop Workshop. 

Joining the Purdue Ag Econ faculty on January 1, 1968 to help start that crop workshop, I took the lead on machinery economics, and on helping farmers use the linear program crop budget to test their own crop farming timeliness-related alternatives.  I’m still doing that.

The Indiana couple became Extension clients; the Ohio couple became consulting clients.  I coached both as they tested before they invested in larger and still larger machinery and farm rentals.  One even got his own Purdue computer account.  Both became trusted speakers at Top Farmer Workshops. 

You wouldn’t know it now, but one refused to look at the farmer audience the first time he spoke.  He stood with his back to the crowd as I asked him questions about the slides showing his machinery, including his two same size used tractors.  He shared, although he didn’t need a second tractor the same size, the extra insurance cost was only three dollars per acre.  If his planter tractor quit, he could be planting with the other in less than an hour.

In 1975, Barbara and I introduced the two couples.  We became their peer coaches, as together, we learned/did/taught each other, how to share business organizations, balance sheets, and budgets, and then to monitor each other’s physical/financial performances.  Once they learned to question each other objectively, they soon respected each other, and each became the other’s “key man” advisor.  They still are.  And, at various stress times, each has stepped into a management role on the other’s farm.

I will always remember driving home from Ohio one Sunday evening after we had spent the weekend with the other two couples on the Ohio farm.  As we passed Richmond, Barbara said, “You didn’t say much this weekend.”  I reflected back over the events of the previous 48 hours silently.   Thirty miles later, Barbara said, “What you did say wasn’t all that good.”  I continued driving.  Perhaps she was saying things to keep me awake.  Just past Indy, Barbara concluded, “Those guys were better than you in everything.”  I drove all the way to our near West Lafayette home.  I knew she was right.

When we got home, I called the local couple, shared what Barbara had said, and asked, “We introduced you, and taught you.  Now, why do you continue to invite us to your peer sessions?”  His response?  After chuckling, he said, “We like to listen to your 1,001 mostly “C-minus” ideas.  Then, we pick out two or three, and make “A” practices out of them!”

Both families continued to have great careers, eventually doing significant off-farm things.

Several years later, at the same national convention, eight years apart, each of the men received the “Distinguished Service to American Agriculture Award”.  As he accepted the award, the first farmer thanked various persons, and then looked at me and said, “There’s the guy with 1,001 mostly C-minus ideas”.  After the laughter subsided, he went on.  “We picked out two or three and made “A’ practices out of them.  That’s why I’m standing here.”  I cried.  I cried a second time when the other farmer made the same statement eight years later.  What great fun!

Then, one of them was honored with a second Distinguished Service to American Agriculture Award.  The following year, I received that award.  Speaking to the American Agricultural Editors Association, I made one point, “Let’s do what we can to revitalize the Land Grant System!” I am.


The West Central Farm Management Association

In the late 70’s, a great Extension Agent and I started the West Central Association.  He created the mailing list. I created a recruiting questionnaire.  For each question, I made three answers, expecting the majority of the respondents to pick the middle answer.  For example, when I asked, “Do you want to have a consultant for each 50, 100, or 150 couples?”, I expected the majority to answer “100”.  When I asked, “Do you want to have a rookie, a good consultant, or the best?”, I expected they would answer, “a good consultant”.  When I asked what they expected to pay, I listed choices of $250, $500, and $1,000. 

Twelve couples responded.  They said they wanted a top advisor, expecting to pay him $2,000 each, and to have him work with 25 families.  The agent and I decided to create the association, and I began to serve, for free, as if I were the advisor.  The first assignment was to help each family create their market value balance sheet, and to calculate their family living for the previous year.

That first January, the agent and I spent a day on each farm.  As I drove out the lane from the first family, the agent said, “I was so wrong.  As their advisor, I’ve worked closely with them for years and I was completely wrong in my estimate of their earned net worth!”  The agent said that again, after we worked with the second family, and the third, and each of the twelve!  We learned they spent from $12,000 to $60,000 in family living the previous year, and their total earned net worth varied from a little to a lot, with the most humble having a lot. 

What a fantastic learning experience for the agent and for me!  That’s why Barbara and I insist that peer couples share balance sheets and budgets as soon as they commit to be peer advisors.

Two Other Associations

Thinking that I needed to help persons have a lower cost association, an agent and I started one in another county, and I also served the first year as their advisor.  What did I learn?  I learned that persons who paid a little, did a little.  Thus, for years, Barbara and I have offered to work with farmers for free or for a lot.  The farmers who pay more do more.

Then, with Purdue agronomists, I helped start groups of three farmers each who studied each other’s crop farming performances.  I was pleasantly surprised when my best group was three neighbors.  They had different goals, different resources, different ages, and a common desire to improve their cropping systems.  It helped that only one of them wanted to rent more land.

Southwest Ohio Association

Perhaps here is the place to describe an association that almost happened.  On October 30, 1961, my former Ohio State Ag Econ Department Chair called to offer me a State Extension position, helping to start a new on-farm research project on cost of raising hogs and beef, and later, dairy and crops.  He said I could get a PhD, while on the job. Thinking I had learned about all I would learn, while living on our home farm and managing 16 SW Ohio farms, I took the OSU job, and recruited seven of my tenants for the hog farm research.

At the end of two years, as I was about to move onto the dairy farm study, 37 of my 75 hog farmers asked me to become their advisor, whatever that meant, since it was unprecedented.  The offer was really tempting.  However, I knew something my farmers didn’t realize; namely, they had learned about all they were going to learn from me.  Unless I stayed with the university where I could stay up to date, I would soon be out of a job.  I’ve repeated that analysis and made that decision many times since. 


Southwest Indiana Association

Just after Barbara retired from Purdue, and just before I did, we helped start the Southwest Association, what became a group of eight farmers from six farms, some of them my former students. It was hard, but, the first day they shared their business organizations, balance sheets and budgets the group was a success! 

We were meeting in a new machine shed at tables set in a square.  The group included three county agents, one of whom became our convener.  As she does so well during our other consultations, Barbara was the facilitator.  We started at 9 am.  Even though our farmer host had pizza brought in, by the pre-agreed 3 pm closing time, we had evaluated only two of the six businesses!

Barbara and I continued to meet with this group, three-four times per year, for eight years.  Most of them had perfect attendance!  What fun last week to see three of them, plus the convener county agent, as we walked the aisles at the Louisville Machinery Show, including two sons of brothers I had taught in Purdue eight-week winter short course.  I just now sent an email to that agent, offering to help him start a serious 4-H farm management pilot club.


Serious 4-H for HS Kids and Their Crop Farm Parents

Read about this program elsewhere on this website.  Recognize we’re doing this for fun; for you, and for us.  Sometimes that’s the best attitude to have for learning/doing/teaching.  We think we’re uniquely qualified, and you are, too.  Together, let’s make our best, better.


FARM PEER ADVISORS, INC.  That’s the name of our new 501-3.C, a non-profit we incorporated in Ohio in April, 2012.  Thus, if/when we need such an entity, we have it.  We want farmer members to run it.