In my quest to collect information and data about how we can best support women in rural and regional Australia through The Wise Women Project, I interviewed Australian Rural Consultant of the Year Dr Neil Moss
Neil was as always very pragmatic, and it was this statement that was a wake-up call for me.
On reflecting on the 20 plus years Neil has been consulting to dairy farmers he said
“A state of chaos is the normal in most years in the dairy industry”
Chaos and disruption is normal. Our reflections on the past and what we consider “normal” are often blinded by our experiences of our early and formative years in agriculture. Those that became agricultural aware in the 50’s or 70’s reflect on the wetter times being the normal. I became “agriculturally aware” on the Monaro in the early 80s when my parents moved to Dalgety and bought the general store- my perception of normal is some degree of drought interspersed with occasional but appreciated wet times. The world was different – we were protected by more favourable terms of trade, lower land values and in some industries quota and floor prices. Many farmers continued to innovate and move forward during and since those times but some have stood still.
No business is immune from change and this is not unique to agriculture. Costs have risen, terms of trade have declined, land values have escalated dramatically and our need to be more efficient, that is, to get more from less, has only become more acute. Stocking rates have had to rise to keep pace, expectations of higher productivity continue and as a result, whether or not you accept the science of climate change, all farms are more exposed to drought and climate risk than they ever have been before. These are the messages that we need to get out. Farmers need to be adopting technology, innovation, improvements in management, improvements in efficiency, improvements in resource use efficiency.
These conversations can be coupled with conversations about sustainability, the reality of carbon cycling in agriculture, emissions intensity, sustainable intensification and animal wellbeing. These factors should not be viewed as being mutually exclusive with productivity, profitability and resilience- the opposite is the true reality.
On the question of genuine financial literacy and valuing everyone in the business
Returns in agriculture need to be carefully considered. While income is important, asset growth and wealth creation need to be factored, as well as the people who are contributing both paid and in-kind labour as well as founding capital. Unfortunately, in many cases no individual is getting income paid directly – It’s just declared as co-drawings. This can make things like tracking or contributing superannuation or other entitlements, generally taken for granted outside of agriculture, very problematic.
Ideally, all businesses should factor in labour costs and pay staff whether they be family or not
It is a critical conversation to have when you’re looking at whether a business is viable in the first place. If your business doesn’t provide for labour costs, then there is risk that what you may be doing is effectively indulging a hobby farming career.
When we look at this there are two things to consider
- Diligence when people are establishing and reviewing the business objectively to also apply a proper wage structures, to all people that are contributing. Otherwise, you are not acknowledging opportunity lost costs of all those involved.
- And secondarily, when we are talking about technology and innovation:
- Identify how the technology can help and also what are its costs and requirements such as training and integration into the whole farm system that need to be considered
- Identify who are the drivers of the adoption and uptake of technology on farms?
On the question of the adoption of technology
Frequently, it’s the women that are more engaged in exploring and bringing new technology to the farm and suggesting where it fits in. Women often have a capacity to sit back, look and say, “Well, why are you doing it that way? Maybe there is a better way and I’m going to go out and find it.”
Whereas quite often, and certainly not always, (there are great examples of technology being adopted by all genders), males can get locked into a “that’s how we do it, that’s how dad did it, that’s how we’re going to keep doing it” mindset.
It is important to not just talk about technology, it’s important we talk about adoption of change in management practices as well as technology, that reflects new knowledge in how things can be done. Quite often we do not need a new gadget or machine, just a review of how things are done and processes in light of the ever evolving on and off farm innovation that is occurring across the world- we are so much better connected these days to world-wide innovation, and it is often women that drive and thrive with this connectivity and approach to critical thinking.
It is important to conduct studies rather than rely on the anecdotal information because the people who are already having these conversations are often working with the progressive or aspirational farmers who are already on the innovation wave or are looking to get on board and wanting to do better.
We need to better understand why some farmers embrace and move forward with technology and innovation and some chose not to.
Questions we should be asking
- Who is adopting the technology,
- Are they using it to its best advantage?
- What are they doing with the data that they’re collecting?
- Where do you get your information on technology?
- How is that information communicated to you?
- Who in the farm team is responsible for bringing it to the table?
- What processes of review do you have before adopting a technology?
- What are the real barriers to technology and change being taken up- is it capital, culture, consensus, access, training or poor explanation of potential benefits and across business synergies?
On the question of the importance of a commitment to lifelong learning
We all know many very successful people who do not have a tertiary education- a university degree or similar is not a pre-requisite for success! However, many of the most successful farmers I am lucky enough to work with adopt a lifelong approach to ongoing continuing education, and learning, albeit less structured. These farmers understand the drivers of their business, they appreciate the critical importance of timing and decisiveness, they understand and manage their key risks and they continue to update skills and knowledge. A profitable and resilient industry needs farming management teams that consider all of this.
In the wake of some of the recent natural disasters I have been doing some recovery work with farms that have been less exposed to both broader industry extension efforts and use of consultants. Irrespective of the real devastation that they had experienced, the failure of either delivery or uptake of messaging and practices that many farmers and advisers consider as basics and fundamentals was deeply concerning. We need to find better ways to connect innovation and technology right across the broad spectrum of aspiration and ambition
On the question of how do we inspire change
To inspire change the industry has used role models and it has had various programs. The issue I see is the industry continues to preach to the converted. You have the same 30% of farms that attend 90% of the structured education extension offerings.
There is a large component of industry that will never embrace or adopt change, time or the next natural disaster or industry price shock will unfortunately catch up with many of these business.
Concerning as it is we may need to accept that it doesn’t matter how hard or what we try and do, there’s going to be many farms that are never going to or want to progress-and that is ok and that is absolutely their choice.
There just must be an acceptance of that.
While the Australian public is in general deeply supportive of agriculture and farmers, the tolerance towards repeated bail outs and support packages may be wearing thin. There is a need to be honest and transparent with the farming sector that next time there is a drought or a price shock, if they haven’t gone out and upskilled, and improved, and taken the opportunities that are there to make their business more resilient, then the public’s tolerance and acceptance of taxpayer funded bail-outs being delivered are being continually eroded
Very few farming businesses are optimized and there is existing and evolving technologies and management changes that can continue to improve efficiency and resilience. People must look on their side of the farm gate first, assess and challenge the operations and structures in their business and see what they can adopt and how they can improve management and adopt technology, and just not blame the milk price next time something goes wrong. This is not to say that issues around inappropriate milk pricing structures should remain uncontested when they do occur as has recently been the case.
This wise woman is very grateful to have this very wise man in her life – thank you Neil