In 2004 and 2005, Jeremy Hopper went through Texas A & M University’s Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP), the famed management workshop that teaches farmers agribusiness skills. “That opened up my eyes to a lot of things we could do,” says Hopper, 41, who manages several thousand acres of cropland in northwestern Tennessee and southwestern Kentucky.

Soon after, he joined FamilyFarms Group [], a Brighton, Ill.-based consortium of producers and business consultants, which is helping him put some of those ideas into practice. FamilyFarms members work one-on-one with experts in a wide range of business areas, including finance, marketing, human resources, GIS technology, and regulatory compliance, says a company spokesperson.

Hopper also belongs to a professional development group, sharing expertise and best practices with a group of 13 row-crop farm managers from around the country.

He’s learned to seek out niche crop opportunities, prepared a written crisis-management plan to deal with hazardous spills, and installed special locks on grain bins and chemical and fertilizer storage.

Hopper also invests in annual third-party audits of his environmental and safety practices, performed by Validus, Des Moines, Iowa. Hopper compares this certification process to ISO-9001, a widely used industrial management benchmark. “We want to make sure we’re doing a good job,” he says. Third-party certification “helps us stand out from others, and brings us up to another level of management.”