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Clarity and communication key to keeping quality staff

Corowa, NSW, grower Beau Longmire has developed a unique co-investment approach that has ensured he retains high-quality employees.
Photo: Border Mail

Farm enterprises that want to attract and retain high-quality employees must adapt to the times and think carefully about their recruitment processes, experts and growers say.

Business management consultant Rebecca Fing, who runs a business based in Goondiwindi, Queensland, says growers should aim to become an employer of choice, rather than an employer of last resort.

“Business owners and managers who have clarity of direction, who set and communicate realistic expectations and actively manage their team are most likely to not only attract the cream of the crop, but also keep them,” Ms Fing says.

She advises ‘employers of choice’ to address five key focus areas:

  1. ensure business objectives and direction are crystal-clear;
  2. acknowledge the value of staff and that times have changed – and mould your business accordingly;
  3. have well-thought-out workforce planning and recruiting processes;
  4. provide a professional, legally compliant workplace; and
  5. actively manage your team – set expectations and communicate well.

Ms Fing, who provides human resources and workplace health and safety advice to growers and small businesses, says it is essential to take a proactive approach to planning your workforce and recruiting quality staff.

“This includes ensuring the right people are in the right jobs and positions are well defined and appropriate. Once a team is assembled, no one can rest on their laurels. Meeting operational and legal compliance requirements is crucial, and running a professional and engaging operation is a must,” she says.

“Times have changed, and employees don’t walk over hot coals for a job anymore. Employers need to meet their candidate in the middle, or risk not attracting the right people.”

Growing together

Corowa, New South Wales, grower Beau Longmire has developed a unique approach to attracting and retaining quality staff whereby valued full-time employees are offered an opportunity to invest in parts of the business.

Beau grows wheat, canola, barley and irrigated corn on his 1700-hectare property, as well as running a substantial contracting business and share farming on 800ha additional to the home property.

Many of his 11 employees have chosen to participate in these “alternative reward strategies”, Beau says. The approach mostly involves machinery, with some staff investing their own money in syndication of equipment that is hired out to other businesses.

“All good people will end up getting poached – or working for themselves – if you are not rewarding them financially or providing a good work environment. We want to retain our staff, because a substantial amount of time and investment goes into them,” Beau says.

People choose how they are involved in the business, and not all of them have wanted to invest, he says. “It depends upon each individual’s appetite for risk, and there are multiple different approaches. It is about working out what they want, and then working with them.”

The fact that he has high-quality employees who are happy at work means Beau no longer has to advertise for staff. “Generally, now potential employees approach us,” he says.

Team approach

Goldmine Hill Farms owner Kerran ‘Gus’ Glover, from Lock on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, has a similar team-based approach to retaining staff. He says it is critical to provide employees with an environment they are happy working in.

“The most important thing is that they enjoy working here, and we give them an environment that is good to be around.”

Gus, who has three young, full-time employees and uses independent consultants (Pinion Advisory) for human resources advice, says his model is based around “everyone feeling like they are part of a team”.

“We are currently looking at the facilities we have, putting in things like an office, lunch room, accommodation and other amenities. We are trying to become an employer of choice, which means having employees who feel valued and feel that they are being compensated properly.”

Like many growers, Gus hires casual staff to help out with seeding and harvesting, and says that finding short-term staff is generally manageable.

“Quality long-term employees are harder to find. It’s purely a supply and demand equation at the moment – there is not enough supply, and a lot of growers are looking to expand. Unless you have a ready-made workforce in the form of family members, it seems to be a tough market at the moment.”

Gus provides all full-time staff with a vehicle and free accommodation, as well as paying “well-above award rates, based on the employee’s level of experience”.

“We pay an hourly rate, rather than a salary, and the rate is indexed to grow over time as the employee’s value to the business increases. We also offer yearly bonuses based on business turnover and indexed to years worked in the business. We have found that has been well received by staff.

“With long-term staff, we consider how we can add them into the business through things like productivity incentives, so that they feel like they have a future within the business.”

Team engagement

People and culture consultant Sally Murfet, from Tasmania-based firm Inspire AG, says farming businesses that focus on team engagement will perform better and be more productive and profitable.

“Engaged employees care about you and your business, which leads to better outcomes. These are individuals that don’t just work for the pay cheque or the next promotion – they work to help achieve the vision and objectives of the business,” Ms Murfet says.

“It can cost anywhere between 50 and 200 per cent of an employee’s wage to replace a mid-level employee and bring a new one up to speed. It is therefore far more practical and cost-efficient if ways can be found to retain good employees in the business.

consultant sally murfetConsultant Sally Murfet says farming businesses that focus on team engagement will be more productive and profitable. Photo: Courtesy Sally Murfet

Strategies to build team engagement do not need to be elaborate or costly. It could be as simple as involving employees in decision-making processes or providing opportunities to upskill through formal or informal training, mentoring or coaching.

Workforce planning and development is a strategic process that involves analysing the operational environment, identifying skill gaps and exploring potential training opportunities to bridge the gaps.

“This is a crucial aspect of running a successful farming business, as it involves evaluating both current and future needs beyond immediate labour requirements,” Ms Murfet says.

This process aims to create strategies that attract, train and retain a skilled workforce. It can be implemented at various levels, including a business, industry or regional level, to inform investment needs and optimise workforces.

“By undertaking this process, businesses can save costs associated with recruitment, which can range from $18,000 to $24,000, and leaders and managers can alleviate the mental burden of focusing solely on short-term or seasonal skill and labour needs by adopting a broader perspective.”

One respondent to a survey conducted online by Ground Cover said it is difficult to source people locally or to find skilled backpackers who are willing to work for reasonable wages.

“The market is tight because many farmers are looking for staff (and wages in the mines are huge). Over the past 19 years, we have been lucky to employ many overseas workers for sowing and harvesting,” the respondent said.

“It takes a lot of luck and finding a full-time worker has been incredibly difficult. Currently, we are using a program called AgCAREERSTART (agcareerstart.com.au) through the National Farmers’ Federation. It is designed to attract people under 25 into the agricultural industry.

“They are young and green, but it’s a pathway, and if we don’t teach the next generation, then we won’t have them. We’ve had one incredibly successful employee and one we had to let go after three weeks, but that is all part of doing business. The really difficult part is knowing where to go to find employees. There is not just one avenue for prospective employers and employees to meet in the middle.”

Staff inductions

When looking to attract and retain quality farm labourers, there are steps that can be taken to start on the right foot. Farm business consultant Denise McLellan says that good pay alone is no longer enough to retain staff; workers want to feel valued and recognised for their interests outside work as well. And a good induction process is where you can begin the foundations for this.

A good starting point for making sure you establish what you want from your staff at the very beginning, Ms McLellan says, is to reflect on your business culture. “Your business has a culture, even if you’re not aware of it. It’s the atmosphere on your farm with your people. It’s your values, beliefs and traditions. It’s those rituals you do on your farm, that other people might not do on their farms.”

Farm business consultant Denise McClellan

Farm business consultant Denise McLellan says good pay alone is no longer enough to retain staff. Photo: Courtesy Denise McLellan

Codifying some of these things into some written policies and a code of conduct can help reduce some of the frictions of bringing on new staff.

“A great culture takes effort,” Ms McLellan says. “It’s how we communicate and how we treat them. It influences productivity, retention and job satisfaction. What we’re paying labourers is going up, but when you’ve got good people, they really grow your business with you.”

Another important consideration that Ms McLellan highlights is to remember not everyone is coming from the same starting point as you. What is common sense to you may not be to other people, as each farm is different, and some people may be coming in with very little farm experience.

Communication is key

It is important to communicate all expectations, even if they feel like they should be obvious. This can include things such as making it clear that there will be critical periods in the season when employees will need to work extra hours, what clothing and personal protective equipment is needed, that they will need to bring food and water out on the farm with them and so on.

It is also good to point out what benefits come with the job. While there are periods where the work hours are intensive, there are probably also times where you can provide more flexibility with hours. If you offer benefits such as firewood, meat or fuel, this is also the time to highlight them.

Ms McLellan says that a good induction is a two-part process. The first part is a sit-down discussion with your workers to go through the appropriate information and paperwork, and the second is getting out on the farm to give a tour, meeting people and reinforcing key information for daily work and safety.

Making sure you have appropriate documentation from the start helps minimise problems later on. This clearly communicates what is expected of both parties and gives you something concrete to fall back on if there is ever conflict. “Things are fine until they’re not,” she says.

Some things you may need at the paperwork stage include:

  • an employment contract;
  • a Fair Work Information Statement;
  • your farm policies and code of conduct;
  • a vehicle and/or housing agreement if you are providing a house or vehicle;
  • obtaining their emergency contact info (and putting it into your phone);
  • asking if they have any pre-existing medical conditions that may be relevant;
  • checking their licence(s), and visa if needed, and noting down expiry dates;
  • a farm map;
  • the farm’s key contacts and adding them to any farm group chats.

Afterwards, a tour of the farm then allows you to reinforce information such as the location of paddocks, sheds, roads, hazards and safety equipment (for example, fire extinguishers and first aid kits). It also gives you an opportunity to introduce them to your other staff.

Investing time into a strong induction process gives your employees a clear representation of your business’s culture from the start, reducing opportunities for friction and providing you with an easy point of reference if any issues do arise, giving you a strong start to a hopefully long and healthy working relationship with employees.

More information: Rebecca Fing, 0427 107 234, housepaddock@bigpond.com; Sally Murfet, sally@inspire-ag.com.au; Denise McLellan, hello@denisemclellan.com.au

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