Producer groups discuss industry strategyWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Over 25 years ago, Woody Lane moved to Oregon and began to teach private courses with an emphasis on forage and grazing management for farmers and ranchers. The courses lasted seven to 10 weeks and inspired producers to develop a networking system known as producer study groups.
Lane is a livestock nutritionist and forage specialist with Lane Livestock Services in Roseburg, Ore., and he is contracted to help facilitate study group meetings.
“These are not run by universities or any of the government agencies, although they can be involved as members. People work with each other and talk amongst themselves with facilitated meetings,” Lane began, during a Let’s Grow webinar hosted by the American Sheep Industry Association on March 29.
There are now three producer study groups in Oregon, each representing a different region of the state. The first group formed in 1995, and the other two were created in 2000 and 2002.
Oregon’s producer study groups are closed to the public, and only members are invited to attend. Each group consists of 15 to 30 members, and each member pays an annual fee to provide funding for the organization.
“Membership is not by person. It’s by farm, meaning that spouses can come to meetings, and people who work on the farm can come. It gives the operation a seat at the table,” remarked Lane.
Meetings are held monthly and rotated between different operations or locations, and each meeting is run by a paid facilitator, who encourages civil, on-topic conversation.
“Membership is for everyone on the farm, and these operations are not only sheep people. Groups are composed of people who raise horses, hay, beef cattle, dairy, sheep and goats. There are companies represented, people from government agencies, conservation districts and veterinarians,” he continued.
The groups also represent producers across the spectrum from conventional growers to niche market and specialty product groups.
“This is a strength. People from all of these places, models and types of operations bring a lot of information. There is a tremendous amount of experience that comes to the table,” Lane explained.
Meeting attendees must also bring appropriate experience to the table, to encourage insightful and informed discussions. Producer study group members are required to first complete the forage and grazing management courses that inspired the formation of the groups or otherwise prove equivalent experience.
“These are advanced groups, and people discuss things from different points of view,” he mentioned.
Lane continued, “A typical meeting runs for about three hours. We first take a pasture walk and then go inside to discuss one or two focused topics. There is often a speaker, and there is a lot of interaction and discussion, both out on pasture and in conversations within the group.”
Meetings also include pasture and grazing status updates, relevant announcements and short and long-term goals.
“All of the conversations focus on profitability and economics of the operation, but not just the economics of the pasture or technique. We talk about how it all fits into the entire enterprise,” he noted.
Focused discussions at each meeting have included topics such as reducing winter feed costs, different types of hay and baling, fertilizer costs and ultra high stocking densities. Producers discuss successes and failures in their own operations, as well as ideas or proposed solutions for issues that impact their regions.
“Everyone learns from the conversation, and it’s not just show and tell. Everybody is involved,” Lane stated.
To make sure that everyone is involved, each group employs a paid facilitator, who sets up meeting dates and locations, keeps track of attendance, gathers background information about meeting topics, schedules guest presenters and guides the discussion to keep it on-topic.
Discussions are also confidential. Topics covered during meetings may bring up business practices and economics, and members agree to keep conversations within the group.
“What’s said in the shed stays in the shed,” he said. “That helps us understand what’s going on and make good recommendations and good discussions. There’s trust involved.”
Keys to success
For producers in other parts of the country who may be interested in building a similar model, Lane recommended starting with a common interest. In the case of the Oregon groups, members came together with a shared interest in the grazing and forage management courses they had completed with Lane.
“The common interest could be a project or a committee. Let’s say there have been pasture walks, and the same core group of people keep showing up. There’s the beginning of a producer study group,” he noted.
In addition to common experience, Lane explained that regular meetings, closed membership and a paid facilitator also contribute to success.
“These groups are a venue for opportunity. These are advanced groups. There is pride and professionalism in what we do, and all of these groups are self-supporting and sustainable,” he stated.