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Fast-changing attitudes to work require business adjustment

A shift in attitudes to work requires some adjustments to farm business management.
Photo: Chris Stacey

The national labour shortage affecting all sectors, including agriculture, is making it more important than ever for employers to stand out from the crowd when it comes to recruiting and retaining workers.

It has also brought a shift in attitudes towards work that requires some major adjustments, according to human resources consultant and Wimmera farmer Denise McLellan.

Ms McLellan says job seekers no longer focus as much on how many hectares a grower has, what brand of machinery they use, or which crops they grow. “They don’t care about what you have – they want to know what you can offer them,” she says.

“Gone are the days when people were lucky to have a job working for you. People are also interviewing you, and you need to come up with the goods of what you can offer them and why you’re great people to work for.”

Ms McLellan, who grows grain crops and trades sheep with her husband Shannon near Dadswells Bridge, south-east of Horsham, focuses on the business side of their operation, which includes workforce management.

A former Agriculture Victoria extension officer and science communicator, she says she is largely self-taught when it comes to things such as business management and administration. “I like to do things well,” she says.

“I also like to make sure we treat employees well, so I’ve looked it up, I’ve figured it out.”

Denise McLellanHuman resources consultant and Wimmera grower Denise McLellan. Photo: Denise McLellan

In the past few years, especially during COVID-19 restrictions when border closures shut off the labour ‘tap’, more people have sought help with recruiting and retaining workers for their farm business.

Ms McLellan says the pandemic has accelerated already-changing attitudes towards work, with more people now looking for jobs they enjoy that also give them the flexibility and lifestyle they crave.

“It’s not just about work anymore,” she says. “They don’t live to work, so the old-fashioned approach just doesn’t cut it anymore. You have to say to people, ‘look, we’re in an industry where there are long hours for certain periods a year, and you’re going to need to work long hours … but the rest of the year, we’ll try and be more flexible’, or whatever it is they’re looking for.”

This is where farms that are run as a professional business have the edge, she says. Having clarity about goals and being able to differentiate the business from others are important for attracting the right people.

Solid induction processes and planning and communication are also key to retaining staff.

“You need to keep them on board with what’s going on and tell them what’s coming up and give them some value, so they feel invested in your business,” she says.

“Rather than having people that turn up to work and you say, ‘Today we’re doing this’, they actually want to know what’s going on and – depending on who you’re employing and what skills they have – people want their own autonomy.

“If you’ve got the right people, you can say, ‘In the next fortnight we need to achieve these jobs’, and they can go and figure it out.”

Among the things she has been working on is documenting codes of conduct, and important policies relating to occupational health and safety and other legal requirements.

These spell out how the business operates, how it treats staff, and what is expected when it comes to behaviours such as smoking, phone use, drugs and alcohol, swearing, seatbelts and driving vehicles on-farm.

“A lot of farm businesses historically involved family members, or they’ve employed people that have worked on farms forever,” she says.

“So we just assume people know stuff, and they actually don’t. Something that I say a lot to farmers that I work with is ‘I’m a grain farmer and you’re a grain farmer, but we’re actually completely different in terms of everything – our rituals, our culture, how we treat people, how we do things, our systems, and we can’t assume that people know that – whether they have farm experience or they do not’.”

Online resources

She says there’s no shortage of employment and safety resources, many of them available online for free, but it can be difficult to know where to start.

“Historically, farmers have had industry consultants do audits on their farm and, for example, they come around and say you need to do this, this, this and this,” she says.

“And then they give them a whole lot of templates and files, which are amazing. And say: ‘Here’s everything you need for toolbox meetings, here’s all your policies, off you go’. And then the farmer is overwhelmed and thinks ‘I can’t do this’. They don’t know where to start and so they don’t do anything, or they might call me.”

She takes those documents and generic information available from websites such as Farmsafe AustraliaPeople in Ag, GRDC Farm Business Updates and state workplace safety and farming organisations, and tailors it to the needs of each farm business.

A good place to start is ensuring everyone who lives and works on the farm has the Emergency Plus app from on their phone. The app helps callers quickly contact triple zero in an emergency and accurately communicate their location.

Ms McLellan says growers should also save emergency contact details for each employee on their phones where they’re readily accessible.

And she recommends having an up-to-date, one-page emergency information sheet, which can be based on a template downloadable from the Farmsafe website. This details what to do in an emergency, who to contact, all the phone numbers that might be needed and the farm location.

She suggests the sheet be laminated and displayed in sheds, workshops and vehicles and saved as a screenshot on phones so it can also be sent to contractors and visitors to the farm.

Ms McLellan uses her communication and facilitation expertise to identify priorities, potential issues and run on-farm meetings to ensure buy-in from employees.

“It’s easier for me to have those tricky conversations and do it in a diplomatic manner that actually gets the best outcomes,” she says.

Most of her clients are in Victoria and she usually starts with an initial on-farm meeting, followed by Zoom meetings when visits are not practical.

She has also run numerous farm safety workshops for Partners in Ag and Agriculture Victoria, as well as pre-harvest safety meetings for Birchip Cropping Group and social media workshops to encourage growers to address misconceptions about working in agriculture.

“Surveys have shown we are perceived as treating our workers poorly and not paying them well,” she says.

“Individually, as farmers and farm businesses or people in agriculture, we can all be making a difference in terms of changing the messaging or improving the perception of what people have of us as farmers and as an industry. Using social media, we can help get the word out that #weloveourpeople.”

More information: Denise McLellan.

Useful resources

People in Ag

The People in Ag website was launched in 2015 as a cross-industry project involving R&D corporations in the grain, dairy, livestock, cotton, pork and egg sectors.

It provides both general and industry-specific resources for employers and employees on a wide range of topics, including employing new staff (getting ready, pay rates, awards and payroll, and finding and interviewing employees) and staff management (leave, holidays, termination, rights and responsibilities, and workplace training and development).

People in Ag has a resources library containing dozens of templates, checklists and fact sheets as well as links to information hosted on other websites.

The site also features case studies with farmers who have modernised both their farms and the way they employ people, and workers describing the different careers available in agriculture.

GRDC Farm Business Updates

For the past decade or more, GRDC Farm Business Updates have covered a range of non-agronomic topics and aim to provide information, tools and frameworks – and links to further support – that help growers make decisions about managing people, money, legal matters and farm safety.

Pre-pandemic Farm Business Updates were staged as in-person events in the northern, southern and western regions.

Since 2020, some have been held as national or regional webinars and the recordings are available on the GRDC website under Past Events.

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