A sportswriter once asked hockey great Wayne Gretzky why he was so much better than other players.

“A good hockey player focuses on the puck,” Gretzky replied. “I skate to where the puck is going to be.”

Even if you lace up work boots instead of skates, you can still use Gretzky’s strategy. Bill Horan, a Rockwell City, IA, farmer, told individuals attending last winter’s Iowa State University 2001 Agricultural Forum that agribusiness resembles a moving hockey puck. Rather than dwelling on its current status, farmers should instead determine where the industry is heading.

“Corporate agriculture is going to be somewhere five years from now where it isn’t today,” says Horan, who farms in partnership with his brother Joe. “We have to make sure our farm is where the rest of the business will be.”

Some folks vilify agricultural corporations — sometimes justifiably so. Yet, like it or not, agribusiness drives many agricultural trends. Rather than letting industry changes blindside you, Horan advises positioning your farm so it may move in synch with agribusiness. If you do, lucrative opportunities may unfold in your future.

Earn an invitation. To join the agribusiness party, you first must be invited, Horan says. One method that Horan and his brother use is to grow contract crops for companies.

“Most all of our beans and 30% of our corn is grown for a specific end user,” Horan says.

They figure that this is one way to position themselves if these companies someday offer contracts for high-value crops used for such markets as pharmaceuticals.

“When these products become commercialized, companies won’t go to the coffee shop to look for growers,” Horan says. “They will go to a seed company for a list of farmers who have a record of growing contract crops. My brother and I have a record with three seed companies that show the quality of seed that we raise. We are on a list. That list may never get us a high-value contract. But it if we’re not on a list, our chances are zero of getting such a contract.”

Horan also links with agribusiness by obtaining business cards of company officials at seed and chemical meetings. “Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll call that man or woman and tell them something that might help their business. I start to build a relationship. To keep the relationship going, I’ll call that person every six months or every year.”

In the future, this networking opportunity may pay dividends. The company official may someday become a product manager who needs a farmer to grow a high-value crop. By forming an early relationship, Horan positions the farm for potential profitable opportunities.

Be a pro. Updating your professional skills is another way to position your farm for future success. Horan works with the Iowa Corn Growers Association to establish a certified farmer project for biotechnology. Plans are to model it after a successful hail insurance program in which participants receive a 5% discount for steps they have taken to reduce risk.

“We thought that if a group of farmers with training can reduce risk for hail insurance companies, we could certainly reduce risk for biotech companies,” Horan says. “There’s value there. We would certify growers in matters like knowing why a refuge is necessary for Bt corn.”

It’s unknown how much farmers will profit from such training. Yet, such skills can help farmers mimic Gretzky’s foresight and drive. “Farmers don’t use lots of networking strategies that other segments of the economy use,” Horan says. “We haven’t had to use it because we are traditionally No. 2 yellow corn producers.”

Due to the identity preservation of grains, that won’t cut it anymore, Horan says. “Everyone in 21st century agriculture will get paid according to the value they bring to the party,” he says. “We have to start to employ some of the same revenue-generating techniques that all other business sectors in this country have routinely done.

“Don’t wait four to five years,” Horan warns. “Be like Wayne Gretzky. Go there now.”