'Get rid of toxic people' in your business is needed yet difficult advice

David Kohl gave valuable business advice during the Northern Corn and Soy Expo. Included in that advice: get rid of toxic people in your business.

David Kohl, Ph.D. agriculture economist, encouraged attendees in a recent presentation at the Northern Corn and Soy Expo in Fargo, North Dakota, to "get rid of toxic people" in their farm business. Kohl has traveled more than 10 million miles in his career, given more than 7,000 presentations and published more than 2,500 articles.
Katie Pinke / Agweek

“Get rid of toxic people,” David Kohl, Ph.D. and Professor Emeritus of Virginia Tech, said to a crowd of farmers and agribusiness professionals at the sixth annual Northern Corn and Soy Expo at the FargoDome on Feb. 14 in Fargo, North Dakota.

Kohl was referencing his creamery business saving on payroll expenses during COVID and not seeing a reduction in productivity by getting rid of toxic people. Productivity stayed the same while payroll expenses were reduced significantly.

“And those toxic people can be family!” Kohl followed up, with a roar of laughter from the agriculture crowd and in many of our minds listening in the crowd, we thought of specific situations in our own farms, ranches, and ag businesses.

Kohl has traveled more than 10 million miles, given more than 7,000 presentations and published more than 2,500 articles in his illustrious career. He spent more than 40 years of teaching at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he still is a guest lecturer.

While excellent advice, putting Kohl’s words into practice is much more difficult to do in practice on your farm, ranch or agribusiness. The people you employ can be family members, neighbors or lifelong friends in our rural corners of America.


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The toxic people may sit by you in the bleachers at your kids’ games and in church on Sundays. Despite some good attributes outside of work, in the work environment, they’re pulling your business down, inhibiting growth or poisoning other employees around them.

Get rid of toxic people, Kohl said. I stewed on it, thinking of how difficult it is for farm folks to not just “kick the can down the road,” as the saying goes, and put off getting rid of the people or person who may be a road block to progress on the farm.

I am not a human resource professional. I hold real-world experience to know keeping toxic people longer because you think they’ll get out of their funk ends up costing you business. I have managed employees for 20 years of my career and own a rural, small business with my husband.

You have your own examples. I have mine. Sometimes it’s leaving a toxic work environment as an employee.

As business owners, set your vision, goals and expectations. Communicate that with your team, at all levels and positions. Create buy-in on what you’re doing on your farm, ranch or agribusiness. Build positive culture people want to be a part of.

After all, you’re the CEO. You’re not “just a farmer,” as Kohl also pointed out.

As with any David Kohl presentation, he offered a deep dive in global agriculture economics. But in this presentation, he also shared his "Business IQ for Crucial Conversations," as well as tips for quality of life, which stuck with me.

The Business IQ included insight on knowing your cost of production by enterprise; setting your business, family and personal goals; taking educational seminars; checking your own attitude; projecting cash flow; creating a financial sensitivity analysis; working with an advisory team and lender; and writing and executing a marketing plan, a risk management plan and plan for strong people management.


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The insight from Kohl was more than the word count for this column can hold, but the strong people management plan ties back into getting rid of toxic people and the personal aspects of his presentation connected to the eight quality-of-life tips he shared:

Physically, drink water. Exercise regularly. Eat a healthy diet. Sleep. Mentally, have a support network with a life purpose. Have mental activities such as reading and meditation. Practice faith and have a spiritual life.

Kohl's talk was a good reminder that the work of a farmer or a business owner is never done. Part of that work can include learning from experts at farm shows, which can bring uncomfortable truths to light. Getting rid of toxic people might not be the easiest thing you can do to improve your farm, ranch or agribusiness, but it will be worth it if you want your enterprise to succeed.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.

Opinion by Katie Pinke
Katie Pinke serves as Agweek and AgweekTV's publisher and general manager and since 2015 has written a weekly column. Pinke resides in rural North Dakota with her husband and children where she is a 4-H leader, active community volunteer, and a proud fifth-generation farmers' daughter.
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