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On a global tour, Nuffield Scholar Reece Curwen finds the top farms always treat employees as an investment, not a cost

At 32, Reece Curwen farms with his family 500 kilometres south of Perth in Western Australia, where the farm produces canola, barley, wheat and sheep on 8,000 hectares. Yet although the farm is so geographically distant from Canada, when it comes to the people management side of farming, it might be right next door.

As in Canada, the number of people in rural Australia is shrinking and the average age of farmers is creeping up into the late 50s. In both economies, too, it’s an employee-driven labour market, and farms must compete for the A-level players with each other and with other industries such as mining.

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So when Curwen embarked on a four-continent tour of successful farms and ag businesses in 2015 as a Nuffield Scholar, he was seeking an answer to one fundamental question: How do we attract, engage and retain the best employees?

“It became apparent that people management is the ultimate limitation for many family farm businesses, which led to a strong passion to see what other farm managers are doing,” says Curwen, explaining the rationale behind his study focus.

Curwen and his fiancé, parents and brother operate the farm with the help of six full-time staff and six casual employees. Curwen himself had returned to the farm after obtaining a degree in agriculture and economics at the University of Western Australia and working off-farm as a grain marketer for a few years.

30 per cent losses

Curwen soon saw that the farm’s main weakness was the unstable labour force. “We were losing 30 per cent of our team each year,” he says, adding that they lacked leadership in their staff positions and were too reliant on foreign labour, which was transitory.

While he didn’t find the elusive silver bullet, what Curwen did discover from more than 120 meetings with top farmers and ag consultants in the United States, Canada, Brazil and Europe, were a number of useful small strategies, the “one-per centers that collectively can make a significant difference.”

Tellingly, almost every farmer he met had at least some challenges with their teams, which led Curwen to conclude that the HR needs of farmers outstrip the resources available.

With Millennials (aka Gen Y, born between 1980 and 1995) firmly in the workforce, Curwen concluded that farmers also need to understand how this generation differs from older Boomers in order to successfully manage the farm’s human capital.

This is a generation with high expectations, says Curwen. They are looking for dynamic workplaces that provide challenging and autonomous opportunities. While money is important, it is generally not top of the list for millennials according to many HR surveys. Workplace culture, career potential and work/life balance also feature prominently in employment satisfaction for Millennials.

According to researchers, Gen Y is a generation that “works to live” rather than “lives to work.” And they will only stay an average of two years in a role before they seek new challenges.

Farmers need to accommodate the aspirations of this generation and create an environment and culture that this generation wants to be a part of, says Curwen. Developing a positive culture should be the number one priority for farmers keeping in mind that “culture is created by design or default.”

By design or default

Curwen identified several elements that contributed to a positive culture on the farms he visited.

  • Have a clear vision of where the business is heading, a mission statement, core values and team goals.
  • Set short-, medium- and long-term goals and then monitor progress.
  • Ask yourself if you have the right people in place to get there.
  • Stay flexible to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

Strong leadership backed up with a good governance structure is especially important when there are both family and non-family members involved in the farm business. Hire outside advisors when needed.

Really work at effective and productive communication, using essential strategies such as formal meetings (daily, weekly or monthly) and electronic methods of communication such as WhatsApp and Wunderlist.

Remember, all employees need to understand why what they are doing is important.

Share responsibilities. Give employees the opportunity to grow with more responsibility. Let them try out other positions within the farm business. Use RACI (Responsible, Accounted, Consulted and Informed) charts to promote accountability.

The “investment” approach

Provide opportunities for growth. Support staff with training, guidance, and the resources needed to do the job successfully. “For business leaders, it will involve investing their own time to teach,” says Curwen. “People within the team should be seen as an investment, not a cost, and provided with training accordingly.”

A well-defined HR plan can help enhance staff engagement and retention, Curwen adds.

Also understand the importance of finding individuals who are a good fit for your farm culture. When hiring look for the right attitude, not just the skill set. “Skills can be trained,” says Curwen. “Employ people who have a passion and heart, not just a good resumé. Business leaders should be patient in choosing the right person.”

Then, protect your reputation. Prospective employees will use Google to help them learn more about the farm business. Ensure the company website, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. give the farm a positive public face.

Create a positive working environment. Good facilities, up-to-date machinery, and modern housing are attractive to employees.

Summing up, Curwen says the most successful farm businesses that he visited had one thing in common: “They felt that people were their greatest asset and they treated them accordingly.”

Since returning home, Curwen says he has been applying what he learned to their own farm operation and it is slowly taking shape, allowing them to increase capacity. The most powerful tool has been enhanced communication among family members. They meet weekly to set out plans for the week, working through the various farm scenarios. “This has made leadership from the top a lot stronger which filters down to the rest of the team.”

Every two weeks, there are staff meetings with the full-time employees to help them understand the why and the how, to keep them involved with decision-making as much as possible.

Once a month an external advisor comes to the farm to resolve any issues and provide an outside perspective to ensure they are all on the same page and heading in the right direction.

Curwen is quick to point out it’s a work in progress. While he works hard to practise what he preaches in their own farm business, he stresses that he continues to learn from his peers and advisors. “Change is the only constant in this business.”


A broader education role for the ag industry

Nuffield scholar Reece Curwen identifies a need for government, farm organizations and institutions to provide a wider level of education and training when it comes to managing people within a business.

“Teach and show farmers best management HR practices,” he recommends.

Agriculture should be part of the national curriculum for primary and high schools to broaden the profile of agriculture to children who are the future farm leaders.

To attract new people to the industry, Curwen recommends finding ways to promote agriculture as a positive career choice to high school and university students.

To attract the next generation, it is up to everyone to tell their stories and promote their farm and industry to show the next generation why it is worth being part of it.

Resources

Reece Curwen’s Nuffield Scholarship Report, “Growing your Business with People — The dynamics between family farming and labour management systems,” August 2017.

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