Ngatai Luke runs a successful liveweight gain cattle business and works closely with farmers throughout the North Island. Some are old hands, some completely new to farming. The business has grown into a significant enterprise with more than 12,000 stock spread across 15 farms.
He says the firm measures success according to two metrics. The first is lifting the bottom line for the farms involved in terms of dollars per hectare. The second is more surprising: ensuring its farmers enjoy a work-life balance that would be the envy of many.
“I was talking to one of our farmers recently and he said, ‘I don’t have a lot to do at the moment, I’m looking for more work.’ I said, ‘Mate, you’ve already got plenty to do, you’ve got a family, go and have a holiday.’”
It’s a philosophy that’s striking a chord in the communities he visits, Luke says. “Everyone talks about farming being a great lifestyle, but so many farmers struggle to achieve that. We believe that you can have both. You can still run a highly productive and profitable farming system but you achieve that by working smarter not harder. Our business is bringing farming back to lifestyle. We are not about being busy, we are about being productive.”
He says the key to this is the company’s stock policy. “You can only control the controllables in farming and that’s why we focus on what we can do well, which is put weight on animals, but we do it in a way that’s good for the people too.”
Luke says shifting the mindset of people used to long hours and little time off can be challenging.
“Mistaking busyness for achievement is a habit that even I’ve had to train myself out of. But if one of our team is getting too busy we tell them it’s time to stop and reset, because something ain’t right. Either you’re not being smart enough or there’s ego getting involved and you’re not involving others in the team.”
He acknowledges that long hours are ‘a badge of honour’ for many in the industry.
“We all know farmers who want to show the world who they are by how many hours they’ll work and if you don’t work those hours then you’re being slack. That’s a strong part of the farming blueprint.”
But that attitude comes at a cost, he says.
“The wheel doesn’t spin right for long if you’re always at work. After a while, everything else tends to start falling around you, because that’s a pretty unbalanced wheel.
“You’ve got to look after yourself before you look after your farm or others. Your own physical and emotional health are crucial for running any business.”
Luke is convinced the biggest influence over people’s wellbeing on farm is having a genuine sense of purpose and he’s made this a major focus of the business.
“As humans, our biggest drivers are our values and beliefs. These are often shaped when we’re young so as we grow older, it’s important to revisit them and challenge ourselves because this is what shapes our decisions at work.
“The first thing we ask people who come and work with us is ‘What are your goals? Family wise? Health wise? Professionally?’ And nine times out of ten, they don’t have any. So that’s where we start. Rather than people saying, ‘This is where I get my next buck from and that should keep me alive for another month’, we want people going, ‘Right this is what I’m actually trying to achieve and that’s what fills me up.’ We are trying to create a values-driven farming community of positive, likeminded people.”
Luke recently got in touch with the Farmstrong team and has been distributing its resources through his networks.
“I really like Farmstrong’s proactive approach. We need to start thinking about mental health much more as mental fitness because the stresses of farming are always going to be there. So the real question becomes: ‘Are you mentally fit right now?’ As humans, we can usually tell whether we are or not. And if we decide, ‘I’m feeling a bit unfit’, then that’s okay, it’s just a matter of asking ‘What can we do about it? What skills do we have in our toolkit to help and let’s get on with it?’”
What about his own wellbeing? After all, these days Luke sounds … busy.
“You’re right, I’m not a man of excuses,” he laughs, “but we’ve experienced substantial growth over the last year. Prior to that, it was five years of going to the gym three times a week and I was doing a bit of boxing there too. Nowadays, it’s a 15-minute walk in the morning but I also coach my son’s rugby team twice a week and go to the game on Saturday. That’s what I do on the physical side. Mentally I’m always reading something I find positive and motivating for at least an hour a day because that’s what fills me up. ”
Luke also places great store on taking time to appreciate life, especially when the going gets tough.
“The science tells us that the human mind is amazingly effective at magnifying the worst things all the time and making the best things seem so small. So you need to consciously counter that, especially when you’re farming.
“For example, one of our farms in the Wairarapa floods quite a bit, but rather than get down about it all, we’ll get round a whiteboard, set out the challenge for what it is, but then look at the good stuff too. How are the people doing there? How are their kids doing? What have they got planned for the future? And all of a sudden it’s a different picture.
“Life’s still pretty good actually. That’s what we’re talking about, despite the challenges in farming there’s always another perspective. It’s yin and yang. That’s what juices me. That’s what keeps me going.”
MORE: Farmstrong is a nationwide, rural wellbeing programme for farmers and growers. To find out what works for you and ‘lock it in’, visit www.farmstrong.co.nz