Thursday, April 25, 2024

Dairy squandering its human capital, consultant says

Neal Wallace
North Otago contract milker takes industry to task for employment practices.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Welsh-born Myfanwy Alexander is unashamedly blunt when she says the dairy industry’s greatest asset is under threat from poor and antiquated employment practices.

The North Otago contract milker and Federated Farmers branch president said unrealistic expectations for staff are causing burnout and deterring new workers from entering the industry.

Adding to her concern is that those not pursuing a career in dairying are denying themselves an opportunity to use New Zealand’s successful career pathway of share and contract milking to achieve herd or farm ownership.

Alexander, a contract milker on a 1000-cow farm near Duntroon in North Otago, was responding to “Dairy industry’s staffing tensions mount” (February 26) in Farmers Weekly, which reported that the Rural Support Trust and farming leaders in Southland are dealing with increasing stress and mental health issues stemming from employment issues.

Alexander, along with dairy farm owner Louise Gibson, has established Sharefarming Consultants, a business that fosters a fair and balanced relationship between farm owner, sharemilker or contract milker.

The days of rewarding hard work with a box of beer are gone, she said, as young people want to be valued, have control over their lives, to play sport, join clubs and spend time with friends and family.

She fears pressure from farm owners and managers and unrealistic expectations for staff are prompting the next generation of farmers to take well-paying, 40-hour-a-week, Monday-to-Friday jobs with agricultural servicing companies.

“My worry is, do we have a sustainable pathway for those leaving school or university to go dairying and get where they want to go?” Alexander said.

Dairying is a high-pressure environment, with that pressure and stress passed down through a farm’s workforce, creating unrealistic expectations and ultimately discouraging people from pursuing farming careers.

“Someone who was up bringing in the cows at 3am cannot be expected to still be cognisant at 5.30pm. Physically you cannot do that.

“It’s a cycle and we need to break the cycle.”

Alexander said dairy farms need to create a culture with boundaries so workers are recognised as humans. Ultimately that environment will allow them to be productive.

“We need to move away from the view that movement and running around a farm to look like you are busy is productive.”

She is not apportioning blame, saying that was how most current owners and managers were treated and it is all they know.

The Rural Support Trust is dealing with workers without employment contracts, which Alexander said reflects the traditional relaxed and trusting way the sector has operated.

That also needs to change if it is to attract a new generation of workers.

“The times I have struggled mentally and physically were when there were no boundaries, which meant I had no autonomy.

“People need to feel they have a say in their lives. They’ve got relationships, family, a life outside the farm.”

Staff should not be expected to devote every waking minute to farm work.

“At the end of the day you have to ask yourself, ‘Who is going to show up to my funeral and who is going to look after my children should I die?’”

If she could change things, Alexander said, her first move would be to ensure staff are treated as humans with employers and managers understanding that employees have a life outside the farm.

Her second move would be to ensure employers and managers were equipped with soft or staff management skills. Such skills have not previously been valued, she said.

“We need to get those old fashioned blokes to go learn those soft skills.”

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