Where have all the skilled farm workers gone?
That is the question that has plagued the dairy industry for years but it now extends to a shortage of experienced farm managers and shepherds with well-trained teams of dogs on sheep and beef farms.
Despite relatively high unemployment levels nationally, the chronic shortage of trained staff in the dairy industry has been well documented.
But a new survey of farmers suggests the shortage of workers affects all sectors of agriculture.
Federated Farmers latest farmer confidence survey confirms that the agricultural labour market remains tight and many of the 872 members surveyed reported greater difficulty finding skilled and motivated staff.
The federation's June survey indicated that all industry groups found it significantly harder to employ skilled staff in the first six months of 2014.
Overall, 26 per cent of farmers surveyed said it was harder to find staff, 40 per cent said there was no change and just 5.1 per cent said it was easier to employ staff.
Labour shortages were more apparent in the dairy sector (30.8 per cent), other sectors (30.2 per cent), grain and seed (24.5 per cent) and sheep and fibre (20.2 per cent). Significantly, 31.9 per cent of sheep and beef farmers said they didn't employ staff.
Otago-Southland, Waikato-Bay of Plenty and Canterbury had the highest scores, indicating acute labour shortages in those regions.
Conversely, Auckland and Northland had the lowest overall scores.
Federated Farmers said there was ''clearly a disconnect between what labour is available and what farmers need in terms of skill and motivation''.
The federation's rural employment spokeswoman, Katie Milne, confirms forecasts of a huge demand of about 40,000 workers required by the agricultural industry in the next decade.
''Everyone wants someone with experience and skills because retraining is a huge cost for any business,'' she said.
While staff shortages in the dairy industry were common, the demand for staff on sheep and beef farms had not been as noticeable. Milne said the isolation of some farms was an impediment to attracting young people into farmwork.
''The skills for shepherds with dogs is very specialised,'' she said.
''People have got to work on farm to gain the skills and they have to have plenty of drive and ambition to work in sometimes isolated parts of the high country to get a start.'' Certainly the jobs are there for skilled and experienced staff.
A quick survey of farm jobs listed on Trade Me's website showed a total of 199 listings last week. Seventy-five of those listings were for farm managers, 41 for shepherds, preferably with their own dogs, and 69 for dairy farm workers.
Farm employment agencies said most of their work was filling vacancies in the dairy industry.
Graydon Sharratt, of Greenstone Recruitment in Hamilton, said it was harder to fill jobs in an industry that was growing all the time. Many farms were running short-staffed and his company had vacancies on their books all the time.
John Fegan, of Cambridge based Fegan and Co, said the sheep and beef sector was not as volatile as the dairy industry in terms of job opportunities and did not have the same highs and lows.
He said the job market for skilled staff with their own dogs had been reasonably stable and had been on an upward trend for the past two or three years.
The staff retention cycle was much longer on sheep and beef farms, but when staff left they may not be replaced.
The number of conversions of downland properties to dairying, particularly in Southland, had compounded the shortage of skilled staff with their own dogs.
Meanwhile, the demand for skilled farm workers has spiked in recent years and students at rural training institutions usually have a choice of job offers before they even finish their training.
Lincoln University offers a oneyear introductory diploma in agriculture course, which attracts between 75-85 students each year, 15 per cent of whom are female.
It also offers an advanced second-year diploma in farm management course, with numbers fluctuating between 30-40 students.
In recent years there have been more jobs available than students to fill them, according to Lincoln senior lecturer in farm management Russell Cameron, who said most students have jobs organised before they complete their studies.
''There seems to be on-going demand for these graduates and even when we have had big classes (up to 93 DipAg. and 53 DipFM students), all got jobs without any difficulty,'' he said.
Last year Telford Farm, a division of Lincoln University near Balclutha, started the academic year with about 50 students, 42 completed their first year, 19 returned to study for a diploma in agriculture and 23 stepped straight into jobs.
Farm director Allan Gorton said most students received several job offers and a choice of jobs before they completed their training.
Some students had received up to five job offers.
Those students who didn't complete their studies usually had jobs to go to, he said.
Student numbers had increased to 73 this year and similar numbers were expected next year.
Some larger farms were now offering students scholarships to pay their Telford course fees, holiday employment and bonded fulltime work as soon as they were qualified.
- NZ Farmer