Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Farmer stress gets laboratory treatment

A Finnish process known as “change laboratory” is providing a closer look at New Zealand dairy farmers’ wellbeing. Tim Fulton reports. Fatigued and frazzled dairy farmers work in one of the most complex industries you’ll find in this country, Lincoln University researchers say. Employment relations lecturer Dr Rupert Tipples and his colleagues are trying to understand the underlying causes of fatigued and frazzled farmers, using a series of tools to help farmers organise their thoughts. To do this, Tipples is building on work WEB Research did for horticulture’s Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme (RES), as well as the experience of a career at Lincoln dating to the late 1970s.

Based on how well that process went – and partly how poorly Australia did in trying to copy RSE – Tipples thinks New Zealand dairying will also need to be thorough before acting on the laboratory findings.

In the meantime he is careful to avoid recommendations.

“We’re not trying to tell the farmers what to do, let me make that very clear. The researchers in this case are trying to help the farmers to analyse their own situation and work out ways to make it better,” he said

His involvement in the Farmer Wellness and Wellbeing Programme suggests many farmers feeling fatigue and generally unwell are equipped for quick fixes but struggle to come up with answers.

“Typically, a New Zealander is presented with a visible problem, they work out what to do with it, and solve the problem.

“Unfortunately, often that doesn’t work. It’s only a sticking plaster solution and there are actually more serious issues underneath it they haven’t addressed.”

Supported by funding from DairyNZ/PGP, the researchers are trying to understand the industry's culture so they can give farmers a more useful approach.

As part of the work, Roberta Hill and Ken Wilson from WEB Research, part of the Lincoln team, went to Canterbury as outsiders to dairying.

To get a rounded picture they interviewed about 30 people, including farm owners, sharemilkers, employees, processors, accountants, bankers and insurance providers.

Tipples’ Lincoln colleague Jill Greenhalgh, with Hill and Wilson, is doing similar work in Waikato in stage two of the project, trying to form a “global picture” of the industry.

To generate their material the interviewers take provocative examples from their study responses and put them back to a selection of the original participants, hoping to stimulate more enlightening comment.

The approach, called a “mirror paper”, allows people to tell their story but also helps researchers clarify their conclusions.

Greenhalgh became more confident of the approach recently after talking to research colleague Phil Holland.

Holland, a 50-year-old Lincoln student, had found the Canterbury study particularly perceptive, having been in dairying as an employee, manager and sharemilker on the West Coast.

The mirror paper process also removed the potential for people to dismiss criticism as a meaningless, minority view, Greenhalgh said.

Just as usefully, the research also promises help for farmers facing mounting stress and fatigue. Tipples says NZ dairying struggles to sustain such collective improvements, like the Amuri Dairy Employers Group or at Clydevale in the Clutha District, as the workforce moves from one place or role to another.

But equally Greenhalgh sees the research as a prompt for people on the ground to come up with solutions.

“It’s driven completely by them and the researchers are simply the facilitators,” he said.

The change laboratory technique behind the study has revealed some distinctive questions for the industry, such as what motivates dairy farmers, sharemilkers and herd managers to work 16-19-hour days, for weeks on end, and from July to December with no meaningful break?

One answer, the researchers have found, is that young, highly motivated men and women are building complex, demanding pathways on the way to farm ownership.

Still, a drawback in this is that taking on large debt creates huge pressure when combined with an ambitious attitude to risk, let alone a lack of business skills.

Additionally, corporate pressure and investors’ expectations were creating a trend away from farming animals to farming land, with less importance placed on animal husbandry and staffing issues and more on a financial bottom line, Greenhalgh said.

Wherever you had more cows, land and irrigation, supervisors would have to do more and a workforce was likely to become more diverse. Herd managers and workers might have the added pressure of communicating in a second language, creating stress in itself.

In the home, it appeared relationship stresses between couples were inextricably tied up with the business and practices of the farm.

Moreover, pressure from the industry to be productive and manage debt as a successful operator could harm a farmer’s self-esteem, particularly as they participate in bench-marking exercises and the like. This stress could lead to lower productivity and depression.

Greenhalgh said the change laboratory’s approach to farmer wellness was different to almost anything else DairyNZ does, involving research tools like ethnography that couldn’t be easily learnt and applied.

The study is also time-consuming: in Canterbury nine workshops were held from February to August on a largely three-week cycle.

“So if you take into account we’re having one a month in Waikato, there’s three months out of the dairy calendar you can’t work … and the project is only funded one year at a time, so it crosses over the funding boundary,” Greenhalgh said.

The speed of progress will hinge, apart from the continuation of the funding stream itself, on key people staying involved.

Tipples said the early-stage Canterbury group had the core of an idea with immense potential, one that grappled with local challenges but could help the whole industry.

For the project to go further it would need confirmed funding and people fit and healthy enough to participate, he said.

What is missing?

Research gaps on dairy fatigue in the New Zealand dairy industry:

  • Lack of good dairy farming employment data, contracting accident and death data.
  • Dependence on a migrant labour force – does migration policy make migrants’ situations more or less precarious, and the dairy industry more or less sustainable?
  • Dairy industry’s lack of legislative and policy compliance – needing to show responsible social partner for GLOBALGAP etc. How can it be improved?
  • Strong dairy culture makes changing anything difficult (eg once-a-day milking) – how can lasting change be achieved?
  • Long-lasting social collective initiatives (eg dairy employer groups) are hard to find – what is needed?

(Source: Rupert Tipples, Roberta Hill and Ken Wilson, South Island Dairy Event, 2012)

For the future

  • Kyte (2008 Lincoln Kellogg scholar) suggested increasing use of wage labour to reduce fatigue and increase efficiency in dairy farming.
  • To employ labour to save on that cost in the long run. For a 600-cow unit, there would be an estimated cost of $50,000.
  • The effect would be to reduce hours worked by all staff:

 – to free a sharemilker to train others

 – to introduce new farming systems

 – to povide time for other things and to put family first

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