No silver bullet in farm labour

Jo FulwoodCountryman
Incoming chairman of WA Nuffield Farming Scholars Cameron Tubby of Morawa with recently-returned scholar Reece Curwen of South Stirling, outgoing chairman Leon Ryan of York and guest Justin Gilmour, Integro.
Camera IconIncoming chairman of WA Nuffield Farming Scholars Cameron Tubby of Morawa with recently-returned scholar Reece Curwen of South Stirling, outgoing chairman Leon Ryan of York and guest Justin Gilmour, Integro. Credit: Jo Fulwood

With access to quality farm labour proving one of the biggest challenges for Australian broadacre farmers, recent studies are not giving farmers with much in the way of good news.

South Stirling farmer and Nuffield Scholar Reece Curwen, who spent much of last year touring across the globe researching the issue of farm labour and farm management systems, said farm business around the world are all facing the same problems when it comes to attracting and retaining farm labour.

“Of the 130 meetings I had around the world, there was only one business I found that had this problem solved,” he said.

“There is certainly no silver bullet.”

But according to Mr Curwen, who presented to the annual WA Nuffield lunch at the University Club last week, there are many small things farmers can do to improve their ability to attract and retain quality skilled staff.

“I found a number of different things, little “one per-centers” that account for a lot if you manage to pull them all together,” he said.

As a starting point, Mr Curwen believes farmers must position themselves as employers of choice.

“Clearly that’s not easy and there are a lot of different things you need to put in place within your individual business to become the employer of choice, and a lot of it stems from your reputation and the public perception of the business,” he said.

“In an ideal world, you want people to come knocking on your door for work.”

Mr Curwen also warned disharmony among family owners would filter through the business and create uncertainty among employees.

“Another big point that I learnt is that the family units within the business have to be working well before you can think about having harmony within the entire business,” he said.

“You have to set the example from the top, and instability within those family units makes it difficult to have long-term loyalty from employees.”

He said taking the time to employ the right staff would save money in the long-term.

“If your business has its core values in place, with a vision and mission statement, and goal that the business is striving for, then you can employ to those core values right from the start,” he said.

“You have to be disciplined at the start to employ the right person.”

He said stereotypical industry perception about working conditions needed to change to attract skilled labour to broadacre regions.

“Farmers have been their own worst enemy in this regard, we’ve developed a persona where we are perceived as under-paid and working long hours,” he said.

“That stereotype needs to change.”

Mr Curwen said his studies, in countries such as the USA, Canada, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, clearly demonstrated the importance of a strong working culture that allowed for the empowerment of staff.

“What this means is that you have to make staff feel as if they are part of the success of the business,” he said.

“Empowering them means you’ve given them some ownership and responsibility and hopefully improves their standard of work.

“The Y generation thrives on responsibility so giving them a specific role in the business, and allowing them to make decisions on that particular part of the business, is essential.

“Obviously this takes a significant amount of trust and courage, but to empower staff you have to give them a certain amount of responsibility and decision-making power.

“The most successful farmers around the world are the ones who have delegated responsibility to others.”

Mr Curwen said only one business he visited in the US state of Kansas was ticking all the boxes when it came to staff satisfaction.

He said daily meetings with the 12 employees, delegation of tasks and responsibilities, decision making opportunities, quality infrastructure, and access to regular skills training meant all the employees were committed and loyal to that business in the long-term.

“The business owner was in those daily meetings but he stood back and just had a monitoring role, and did his best not to intervene,” Mr Curwen said.

“He had created a family environment and the employees felt like they owned the business.

“That was what it took to have complete harmony amongst all his employees.”

Mr Curwen said contrary to popular belief, money was not the single driving factor in a successful employment arrangement.

“If you look at a list of the biggest motivators when it comes to employment, people and culture is first, career potential is second, work-life balance is third and compensation is fourth,” he said.

“My research has demonstrated that the hourly wage is the most effective compensation and the annual bonus rarely works, given that it becomes expected and anticipated.”

Also while at the meeting, the outgoing chairman of WA Nuffield Farming Scholars Leon Ryan of York, announced the election of Cameron Tubby of Morawa as the new State chairman.

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