Why This City Kid Has a Big Heart for Agriculture

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication & Organization Director: Member of the Governor's Advisory Council to the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) and Hickman’s Family Farms Chief Financial Officer, Jim Manos is a city kid with a big heart for agriculture. And, his experience working as Controller for Shamrock Dairy and Controller and Vice President for Parker Dairy Farms in the 1980s helped shape his love of agriculture and his advocacy stance on behalf of the industry.

With a BS in Accounting from Arizona State University, Manos honed his professional experience managing a chapter 11 reorganization for a multi-state homebuilder in the early 1980s. His big take-away from that experience was to manage growth and to use good cycles to build a company’s war chest for the inevitable bad cycles, something the agriculture industry knows all too well.

In addition to his work with ADA, Manos previously served as vice chair of the governing board of Central Arizona Shelter Service where he served as chairman of the audit and finance committee.

He is also a past member of the governing board of St. Joseph the Worker in addition to sitting on an advisory panel to Kyrsten Sinema when she was on President Obama's healthcare advisory board. Manos advised her on the impacts various healthcare initiatives might have on small businesses.

Manos is known for having said, “Converts have a greater appreciation for their conversion than those born into it and that is how I feel about agriculture.” In this conversation article we’re about to find out why he believes converts are agriculture’s best advocates.

Hickman's Family Farms Chief Financial Officer, Jim Manos, is a city kid with a big heart for agriculture.

Arizona Agriculture: What’s been the most pleasantly surprising aspect of working for a family farm?

Manos: I have spent most of my professional life working for family-owned companies. First a homebuilder, then a dairy and now Hickman’s [Family Farms]. There are similarities in the three. Owners of family businesses tend to be passionate about their companies, and that is a good thing. A good family-owned business is one in which the owners pass that enthusiasm on through to the employees. Hickman’s has grown from about 110 employees to over 800 in the years since I have been here. That kind of growth makes it difficult to continue generating the owners’ passion in the lowest-level employee. So, I don’t think I would use the word surprising, but I do like that the Hickmans have worked hard at showing their appreciation for all employees; worked hard at making every employee feel they matter. As a company grows, that is what will make it successful. Employees are the number one component of a successful company, be it Google or Hickman’s Family Farms.

Arizona Agriculture: As Chief Financial Officer for a large family farm and fully focused on commodity prices, what price horizons on commodities, especially corn, do you have to watch for? Anything you’re preparing for and anticipating in 2017?

Manos: In a word, labor. We can deal with price fluctuations in our inputs such as corn. We have been doing that for years. There are so many tools available to us to limit the impact a price fluctuation in corn or soybean meal can have on us. Even such things as Director Killian’s annual symposium help us in making decisions about what levels of feed inputs we need to lock and at what price points. But labor is different. Factors outside of our control play way too big a part. It just came out at the big Farm Bureau [Annual] meeting held in Phoenix in January that we have lost a lot of the immigrant labor, not to increased enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws, but to the rise in Mexico’s own economy. I think any agricultural operation would be telling a lie if they said that they find the youngest of our workforce as a group that accepts dirty, manual labor. And with the rise in the minimum wage, they have alternatives. So, we need to work on how we manage that input, for labor is our second most expensive input. It will be our biggest challenge for the coming few years.

Arizona Agriculture: Compare your financial role on behalf of a farm versus your previous work for a multi-state homebuilder

Manos: Unfortunately, I didn’t have a very long run at the homebuilder during normal business times. In less than a year of my employment, the company filed Chapter 11 and I spent most of my time managing the bankruptcy. Although, it was a great experience, I had to make trips to Dallas and Houston to shut down those divisions, it didn’t provide me with much in the way of a normal CFO-type experience. But being threatened with a shotgun at age 28, and with a newly pregnant wife, by an unpaid subcontractor was a great life lesson and I vowed to do everything in my power to help any company for which I worked not to get to that point again. The big take-away for me was to manage growth and to utilize good cycles to build your war chests for the inevitable bad cycles. Homebuilders, just like egg producers, are subject to good and bad cycles.

Arizona Agriculture: You’ve discussed the “price-taker,” not “price-maker,” environment of the agriculture industry and how low agriculture prices put farmers and ranchers at great risk. You advocate a bit of an unconventional solution. Can you explain?

Manos: Of everything that is produced in this country, nothing is as important as food. We can all live without 65-inch televisions or even cellphones (as much as our grandkids may deny that).  But food is obviously needed to sustain life. And I would contend of all the things we need to not depend on a foreign country producing for us, food is at the top of the list. We were all concerned a few years back about being dependent on foreign sources of oil. And there is no doubt a seriousness to that. But I would rather be dependent on Mexico for oil than being dependent on Mexico for food. Not that I don’t appreciate foreign trade and I really appreciate that Mexico can provide me the raspberries I mix with my Greek yogurt in the morning during the times of year they cannot be produced in our country. Foreign trade is an important part of agriculture and we should all support it. Being dependent, though, on foreign food is something different. We can be dependent on other countries for our food diversity without being dependent for our sustenance.

Many years ago, some very smart people realized this and enacted laws to protect our food supply. These protections are called subsidies, kind of a dirty word these days. And twice every decade, when new farm bills are discussed, these subsidies come under pressure. Like almost every other type of entitlement program their origins were well meaning and even effective. But like all other entitlements, they no longer are the best way to accomplish the goal of making sure the people of this country can feed their families.

One of the problems with farm subsidies is that they are not uniform across all agriculture. Eggs, for example, receive no government support whatsoever.

My suggestion is to let agriculture manage its own food production. It is advantageous to the general populace for us to over produce. Not because it drives prices down but because it assures there will be adequate food available if Mother Nature throws us a curveball. Take what happened with eggs during 2015 for example. We had plenty of chickens and plenty of eggs until the Avian Flu hit and wiped out over 35 million laying hens. All of a sudden, eggs were in short supply. Had we not been at overcapacity just a couple of months previously, you would not have been able to buy eggs at your neighborhood Basha’s. It would have been like the gas lines of the early 1970s.

The problem, though, with being over produced is that in years when something like AI doesn’t hit, the farmers are left to sell their commodity at below cost. The cost of guaranteeing that every person has access to inexpensive food falls on the shoulders of the American farmer. My solution is simple albeit somewhat controversial. Let the farmers manage their supply. That means that we let industry groups talk about production levels without fears of price-fixing lawsuits. I am not suggesting that we should be able to talk about what prices we charge or set standard prices for our goods but I am suggesting we be allowed to discuss production levels. We could then eliminate all subsidies and live or die as the results of our own devices, not because the American taxpayer bails us out. I am a firm believer in making people responsible for their own success or failure. Doing so in agriculture means our hands have to be untied and we must be allowed to manage our own production levels.

Arizona Agriculture: You’ve said, “Converts have a greater appreciation for their conversion than those born into it and that is how I feel about agriculture.” Talk about this a bit more.

Manos: My maternal grandfather was a convert to Catholicism and one of the best Catholics I have ever known. To this day, he serves as an inspiration to me. I think when we adopt a belief or religion or in my case, an industry that we didn’t grow up with, we see the good things in it that others may take for granted. There is an inherent “goodness” about most people who work in agriculture that I didn’t see in other industries. We tend to care more about others in our own industry. We see the importance of food and thus, we give freely to organizations who help provide it to those who are food insecure. Most contracts are sealed not with a signature but a handshake. And the most important thing for me, we are feeding children, we are feeding the elderly and we are providing a cheap commodity that even those economically challenged can afford. Not to demean CPAs but when I worked for a CPA firm and went home at night, I could make no argument that I helped make the world a better place. Providing eggs, I am proud I am doing a little bit to that end.

Arizona Agriculture: USDA claims that agriculture will generate 50,000 new jobs in Agriculture every year through 2020. What should interested students start preparing for now?

Manos: One of the topics of frequent discussion between Director Killian and me is that we need to get the word out that a job in agriculture does not mean learning to drive a tractor, or how to pick lettuce or how to milk a cow. These are all great and important jobs but probably not that attractive to a college student. But there is so much more to agriculture now. We need people to fill positions such as mine, good finance people with an interest in doing something constructive with their degree. We need Ag economists to be bankers and to help us advocate to governments. We need programmers and engineers to program and design robotic solutions to our labor problems. We need law students to put an emphasis on agriculture and the unique legal issues we have. And we need people who have a fundamental knowledge of, and an appreciation for, agriculture to run for public office. The opportunities in agriculture are as varied as the groups from which we need to solicit interest.

Arizona Agriculture: You’re a strong advocate for getting more youth involved in this industry earlier. You’ve mentioned that we don’t see enough young people at our industry gatherings. Expand on this point.

Manos: If I could impact any area of agriculture, this would be my choice. It is a simple question with complex answers. The first thing we need to do, and to start at a very early age, is to teach kids from where food comes. And to do so, we need to get help from people who have no connection to agriculture themselves. Too often, we design the lessons we want teachers to use and we always do so from our own perspective. I am a member of a family of teachers. And they are really good at figuring out how to teach a subject. I may know how to read but I could no more teach a 6 year old first grader how to do so then I could fly to the moon. My wife on the other hand, has taught hundreds of kids to read. We need to give teachers an incentive to teach about agriculture and help them with facts and then, stay out of the way. Let them figure out how to teach it. Provide funds, they surely don’t have any, and support but not lesson plans. Next, we need to start exposing older kids to the opportunities that exist in agriculture. As my answer to the question above hints at, there are more types of jobs than most people know. We need to reach out to high school and college students and bring them to industry meetings. We need to be active on college campuses and to offer internships. The banking industry recognized a while ago that hiring interns was the best way to fill the ever increasing vacancies for sharp minds. My final suggestion is probably the most difficult for the owners of family farms. We need to let go of the reigns a bit. When you have grown up in a family farm, when it is all you have known and when your name is on the door, it is difficult to give up any control. Even if you are someone like me who has been in a position of authority inside a family company for so long, it is difficult to allow someone to come in and make any type of substantive decision. But as parents we all know that the only way to raise independent kids is to allow them to make some decisions on their own and to make a few failed decisions as well. The same holds true for family owned businesses. As we grow, we have to empower others to help us manage. And the best and brightest require not just a good wage but they want to feel that their roles are important. To accomplish this, we have to turn over some of the important decisions. As the father of four adults, I use raising kids as a template for raising good employees. When you are raising kids, there is a fine line between letting them make their own decisions and keeping them safe. You may start by letting them dress themselves. You may step in only if they are not dressed appropriately for the weather but look past if their outfit matches. We need to “raise” good managers the same way. If their approach is different but their effect is the same, we must accept that. I catch myself every time I start to say, “Well, I wouldn’t do it that way.” I have to think and make sure that I am protecting them from the cold not from the embarrassment of having an outfit that doesn’t match. The best and brightest will gravitate to the companies who let them dress themselves.

Arizona Agriculture: Farm families struggle with succession planning and perhaps one of the reasons we might see the next generation locked out of the engagement. From your perspective, what could families be doing to improve their family’s succession plan?

Manos: I think the answer to this lies in the answer to number seven above. Kids must know that they will be allowed to live outside their parents’ shadow and to make a mistake or two and to do things their own way.

Arizona Agriculture: What do we, in the agriculture community, need to be better at?

Manos: One of the most important changes I would like to see in agriculture would be more cooperation between the different elements of agriculture. We may produce eggs and you may produce hay and you may be a lobbyist for the dairy industry but we all have an interest in emphasizing to the general populace the importance of agriculture. And more importantly, it is important that we speak with a united voice to our elected officials. In the end, we all make our livings from producing food. That gives us a common goal and should forge a partnership. Too often I see groups think they can improve their lot only by diminishing some others. That is why groups like the Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture are important. They speak for us all, even when we have a hard time speaking for each other.