From Farmer to Adama Executive: Interview with Gerhard Ahlers

In honor of Family Day, we sat down with Gerhard Ahlers, Vice President Northern Europe at Adama, to find out more about his family and what it was like for him to grow up in a family of farmers. Gerhard spent his childhood on a farm that has been in his family since 1882. Below is an interview about his background and how it has shaped his work at Adama.

Q: What it was like to grow up on a farm? How was the work-life balance?
A:
My family has a farming heritage of almost 500 years, and the farm that I grew up on has been in my family for nearly 150 years. One of my most distinct childhood memories is driving a tractor when I was nine years old! I was also often tasked with taking care of the farm animals after school. I wouldn't exaggerate if I said farming is in my blood, and the annual cycle is part of my DNA. If I see the snow outside in spring, the first thing that will come to my mind are the crops, not the weather. I will become troubled by the question of how the cold temperature  will affect the cherry blossoms or the emerging sugar beet.

With regard to work-life balance, that may be something that office workers can achieve, but farmers live their work every day, all day. For farmers, there is no such thing as “leaving work at work,” or "working 9 to 5." In our house, we lived and breathed the farm. We discussed the farm at meals, and the day to day activities of our farm were always a natural part of our conversations.

Q: How has farming changed since your childhood?
A:
Farmers are still growing crops, of course, however there have been significant technological advancements and population growth. Today, the management of various inputs, such as water, fertilizer or crop protection in parallel with strict regulation, is becoming more and more complex, hence the growers  also must adapt to the new situation by making decisions like business people, running their farm as they would run a company.  This view is supported by a survey we recently conducted on small, medium and large farms across North-Europe, which discovered that farmers on larger farms see their farms as business. They have instituted tremendous structural changes as farms have grown. These farmers have morphed into true business managers. For these farmers not the Mill is the customer for wheat but the consumer. Modern farmers take the entire value chain into account, not only the direct customer of their produce.

Q: What type of connection do you have to your family farm today?
A.
My nephew now runs our family farm. He handles the day to day activities, but still consults with me from time to time on strategic issues, so I still have a good idea of how our farm is doing, even as I have watched it change tremendously over the years.

Q: How did your background in farming influence your career path?
A:
I grew up in a family of farmers, so pursuing a career in farming was a natural choice. My experience with farming was always so positive that it was an honor to continue the family line. After considering various options, I decided to attend university to study agriculture. I eventually earned my PhD and became an agronomist so I could be an advisor to other farmers.

Q: And how has your farming background influenced your work at Adama?
A:
My background certainly influences my current work and I feel fortunate to work in a company that is so focused on the farmer. At Adama we place a great deal of emphasis on getting close to farmers, to understand their needs and challenges. We also place a special emphasis on creating products and solutions that truly meet these needs, getting our ideas for these solutions directly from the farmers, and not from the labs, for example. Coming from a family of farmers myself, I can understand why farmers make certain decisions and what drives those decisions. My background in farming also enables me to better grasp the challenges farmers face daily, and to translate that into Adama business opportunities. .

Adama’s focus on creating simplicity in agriculture resonates strongly with me. With so many unknowns and complexities – for example the almost complete dependency on the weather, changing pests, new regulations – the work, and the life of a farmer are ever-changing, with one constant: the need for simplicity.

I believe that my background and personal history, growing up and working on a family farm, have greatly influenced my work at Adama. Farming experience isn’t necessarily required for people in this industry, but it has contributed a great deal to my knowledge and understanding of this the life and work of farmers.

I feel lucky that I have the opportunity to merge my love of farming and business in my career at Adama. 

Gerhard