Sharemilking relationships need talk

Last updated 07:01 30/05/2014
Federated Farmers sharemilkers employers section chairman Brendan Attrill
Fairfax NZ
NOT EASY: Federated Farmers sharemilkers employers section chairman Brendan Attrill says: "It's not easy, but it shouldn't be easy either. We only want the talent coming through in that sharemilker space, and if it was easy, the majority of New Zealanders would be having a crack."

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As Gypsy Day looms, farmers are getting ready to welcome new sharemilkers and start a new dairy season.

It is a business partnership like no other - but when it turns sour, both sides lose out.

For one sharemilker, who doesn't want to be named, the thought of pulling the pin on a career several years in the making is very real.

Starting before the crack of dawn to milk cows every day didn't feel like work until he came across a farm owner who didn't respect the 50-50 partnership.

"Feels like 20-80 some days."

He now feels isolated, and fears that if the business relationship can't be salvaged, he will be homeless, with a herd of cows to find a new home for as well. And a massive mortgage to pay off.

"I felt that there was nowhere to turn, and nobody I could call to get solid, independent advice.

"Our industry is losing far too many good people due to bad experiences with farm owners that employ workers and pay them minimum wage, sometimes below, and make them work 60-hour weeks."

He said that while it could be difficult for some farm owners to hand over control of their farm, they needed to let young bucks prove their worth.

While there were plenty of sharemilkers who had been found wanting, others needed to be given room to work, he said.

That point was echoed by South Taranaki farm owner Ray Lawrence.

Lawrence said that when his son Hayden signed on to work the land, they set long-term goals and stuck to a plan.

"It made it easier for us because it was family, but I believe we have to have young people carrying on with farming.

"And he's done a much better job than I did."

He said farm owners needed to realise when contract, lower order and 50-50 arrangements were not financially or personally right for them.

"I question that at times, because there tends to be a lot of borrowing still going on."

Lawrence said a farm owner in a 50-50 partnership needed to step back and take a high-level approach to the business, but still be on hand to offer advice and guidance when needed.

Simply put, micro-managing didn't work in the paddock, he said.

"I think it's really difficult to underestimate the ability of some of these young ones, particularly the ones like my son, who have been to university and come home with a huge amount of intelligence."

Lawrence said a fresh perspective could be the difference between meeting production targets and having a bad year.

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Federated Farmers sharemilkers employers section chairman Brendan Attrill said the key to a prosperous farming partnership was also what made a successful marriage.

"Communication, communication, communication. You have to work at it every day."

Both parties had to give a little while still aiming to hit most of their goals, he said.

"But at the end of the day, some people are not a good fit."

Attrill said a lot of the tensions he had seen were in father-son or father-daughter partnerships.

"They can be as hostile as any commercial relationship can be.

"It's not easy, but it shouldn't be easy either. We only want the talent coming through in that sharemilker space, and if it was easy, the majority of New Zealanders would be having a crack."

Attrill said time put in at the front end of the contract process saved a lot of hassle down the road.

When things did go wrong, both parties needed to do some soul- searching as to how they were managing the relationship, he said. If they failed to find common ground, a mentor needed to be enlisted. "It could be a family member, a third party consultant or a business partner."

The next step was arbitration. "If you get to that point, the relationship has deteriorated to a point of no return.

"To be honest, I haven't seen a lot of great outcomes out of that process, but sometimes it's the only option."

- Taranaki Daily News

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