Doing better by our people.

There are figures on our primary sector’s labour transience that make for alarming reading. They’re remarkably high. In case you missed them, only 29% of those entering the primary sector remain after three years.  

While factors behind the statistics are complicated, one of the simpler, often cited reasons for leaving the sector is poor workplace culture. That falls strongly into the preventable turnover basket. And preventable turnover equates to 78% of total dairy transience, meaning four out of five people who have left the sector, might’ve stayed, had we done better by them.  

Bad news, old news, good news.

It’s not just farm workplaces buckling culturally under today’s stresses either, it’s large agri-businesses too, with allegations of poor management, and unaddressed toxic cultures more common than they should be. 

In both small farms and in larger business, failure to fix a problem culture can lead to performance issues and the destruction of the relationships with the people and teams helping those operations succeed. That’s the bad news. It’s also old news and too big to wrestle with here. So, we’ll offer a couple of pieces of good news about a few people trying to make a difference instead. 

Individual farms are now leading change, enthusiastically embracing management thinking from other industries. Farm owners, exposed to high performance ideas and practises bring their learning back home, to the farm. Couple this with a wider acceptance of wellbeing philosophies (previously known as ‘that touchy-feely-stuff’) and you have individual farming operations reporting much needed decreases in staff turnover. 

Rebecca and Brent Miller: Kellogg Scholars making changes. 

At the heart of what Rebecca and Brent Miller do lies a simple idea, if you work on yourself before you work on your team, good things will follow.  

Rebecca has just won ‘Emerging Leader’ at the 2021 Westpac Champion Business Awards. It’s an award that recognises performance across all industries, not just the primary. The award blurb states, ‘recognising a leader who is ambitious in outlook and vision, one who embraces innovation, shows resilience, and who inspires and invests in others.’ All good things, so it’s worth taking a closer look for ideas worth sharing. 

“What we stand for, our values, our negotiables, and non-negotiables, are all important for us, our team, and our farm. Everything comes down to knowing our strengths, weaknesses, and how we’re likely to contribute within a collaborative framework.” 

The school of hard knocks. 

Fifteen years ago, sharemilkers Rebecca, Brent, and their young children, were at a crossroads. It’s a familiar dairying family story, 2:30am to 7:30pm, 28 days on, two days off, moving between farming positions constantly and far too many tricky experiences with farm owners – their employers. They were on the brink of breakdown. All bets were on leaving farming forever.  

“We thought something had to give. But then you realise all your skills are in dairying. It was all we knew. So, we decided to stay and really reflect on what it was we needed from our next employer.”  

“We researched farm owners who supported, coached, and mentored their staff. We knew that if we were to stay in dairying and grow, we had to find the right environment for that to happen. Sadly, at the time, they weren’t easy to find – but eventually we did.” 

“We’d put business first at all costs in the past and that approach wasn’t working for us. We now knew it had to be family first.”  

Building the trust.

The Millers found an employer who opened their books, allowing them to benchmark against over a dozen farms in the owner’s network. The power of knowing ‘the numbers’ meant better decisions could be made, and efficiencies found by gently applying the right pressure at the right time. This sharing quickly built trust between themselves and the owners.  

“Passing that on and taking care of our team, seeing them grow and succeed, became a priority for us too. We have learned that as leaders of a team, the environment we provide on the farm, the behaviour, the way we share, interact, the words we use, the decisions made, and by who, are just a few of the factors in a high trust, high-performing and connected team.”  

The Millers strongly believe in the idea of sharing what they can to help others improve their on-farm methods and culture too.  

“MilkIQ is a platform for achieving that. It’s fuelled by a passion for people and driven by a desire to help them succeed.”  

With MilkIQ the Millers have just gone out and said ‘hey, this is who we are.’ “It’s a wellbeing tool, hopefully demonstrating trust in practise.” 

Hamish Murray Bluff Station Nuffield

Hamish Murray: A Nuffielder making changes. 

In a Farmstrong article from earlier this year, Nuffield Scholar and high-country sheep and beef farmer, Hamish Murray, also acknowledged the importance of his own journey. He spent a year on his Nuffield scholarship studying businesses with high-performing team cultures, including time in Silicon Valley, and in Christchurch with the Crusaders Rugby Team. He observed their continued focus on ‘soft skills,’ and shared values. 

“Soft skills are things like the way you communicate, make decisions, reflect and feedback. If you understand each other [other’s styles], you can combine to make good decisions.” 

“We’ve also done an exercise with our team to agree on what values will drive the decisions in our business. It’s empowering everyone to move forward, and it allows me to stand back and let the others lead.” 

The results speak for themselves.

Hamish is confident this approach is paying off. One good indicator has been a reduced staff turnover. Hamish acknowledges how important it is to create an environment that allows others to flourish and one that attracts and keeps great people. A big part of that he says, is letting your ego go, getting out of people’s way and asking the questions that help others do an excellent job. To do that he says, you have to work on yourself first. 

“Sometimes it’s not until you get to breaking point that your own learning and reflection kicks in. The journey for me started at a real low, but now I look back and think I’m incredibly lucky to have had that experience.”  

Hamish is referring to the stresses created by the Marlborough and Canterbury drought of 2014/15.  

“Trying to keep everyone going when you had no control over anything was so draining … we ended up with stock on fourteen different properties. The support I’ve had from my family and my team, the groundwork we’ve done together has really given me the confidence to keep learning and growing our business.” 

It starts in your own back paddock. 

Rebecca, Brent, and Hamish have shown that one small, first step toward keeping people in primary sector, in a ‘start in your own backyard kind of way’ has to be toward yourself, then to your own ‘FarmilyTM,’ your rural community, and beyond to industry. Rebecca adds, “What we can control first is our own behaviour. When our behaviours are good, we allow others to be the same and we start creating that change.” 

Rebecca Miller did the Kellogg Rural leadership Programme in 2018. Her study topic was: Is there a need for an information platform to collaborate primary sector events? 

Brent Miller, Rebecca’s husband, did the Kellogg Programme in 2020. His study topic was: What is the true cost of transience to the New Zealand dairy industry? 

Hamish Murray is a 2019 Nuffield Scholar. Hamish’s research was Future farm workplaces. It investigated the work environment needed to attract and retain people in the primary sector.


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