AUSTRALIA is a big agricultural exporter, but is there an opportunity to value add by exporting labour, particularly management and proficiency?
It’s difficult to put a dollar value on it, but the experience and lessons learnt from working overseas are invaluable and in many cases, are eventually brought home to benefit our own industry.
There’s no doubt that travelling and working overseas can dramatically broaden and deepen a person both personally and professionally. Experience and education could be likened to fattening the brain. And I reckon there are some great weight gains to be had by some Aussies managing operations abroad. But are we grasping this unique opportunity?
On one end of the scale we have people that learn to drink pints or race armadillos whilst working harvests in the UK or the USA. Then we have people like Bruce Creek who left South Australia two years ago to develop and manage one of the biggest Australian registered Angus stud herds in the world, in Kazakhstan.
Granted, both ends of the scale add worth to a person, but perhaps a greater value comes from the example of Bruce and his wife Libby. Yes their experiences are priceless, but their roles see large-scale value added to a community, province and the economic development of a young nation.
Bruce and Libby were offered the position in 2011 by the Kazakh-based Server Agro N. This February marks two years with the company and Bruce has just signed up for another two years. Libby spends much of her time in Australia with their two daughters Emma and Stephanie who have finished school and starting nursing degrees respectively. Their eldest, William, is the assistant manager in Kazakhstan with Bruce and he’s accompanied by Jess his partner, an agronomist. The two of them are nearly halfway through a two-year contract. What an experience to bring home.
Libby says Bruce developed a strong bond with the company directors from the beginning. During his time there he has built relationships with people globally to source information and resources which have added weight to his commitment, and in turn they trust Bruce with a long leash to develop the business.
They started with a bare block and have since imported 3300 Angus cattle from Australia. They’re lot fed in winter, and when the snow has lifted, the remaining six months are spent grazing 7500ha. Making the most of growth following the snowmelt, that adds roughly 150mm to their 75mm annual rainfall. The parent company farms 60,000ha of grain, a medium sized grain producer in Kazakhstan, which is home to some of the biggest growers in the world.
With the highest global wheat consumption per capita, Kazakhs don’t do gluten-free. They do crusty bread, usually accompanied by boiled mutton or horse meat. Unsurprisingly, poor old Bruce lost a few kilograms at the start until he found some more palatable options. To us, their diet alone is enough to justify the investment this country is making into building foundations through strong genetics for top-grade, large-scale beef herds.
Kazakhstan, like Russia, is gaining momentum in agriculture. With steady politics, labour forces that are hungry for knowledge and increasing technology, they’re now crying out for western expertise in building, training and managing farms.
Their growing domestic and corporate demand for red meat in a country where the priority has traditionally been in wheat means the joint is rife with opportunities for people and companies willing to commit, learn and teach.
Professionally, Bruce has really needed to focus on forward planning and preparing for the unexpected. A great excuse for office work in -35C temperatures I reckon. But in such a harsh climate, plan B, C and D are often used. He’s worked very hard on his communication skills, in getting the best out of people from a range of cultural backgrounds and various employment histories. He’s also had to encourage commitment from his staff to agriculture, as it’s all so new.
”The workers are so keen to learn. They had never seen a fence before, so following some training, and importing gear from home, we set up a fencing team that went on to build 370km of excellent quality fencing in six months,” Bruce said.
“All with wire and materials imported from Australia.”
Bruce also installed ProWay cattle yards from Australia, which were installed by an Aussie team. They’ve since sold two more systems into other operations there.
When I asked Bruce about what skills he has learnt there, that really stick out, he said:
“Improved ability to adapt and find alternate ways to accomplish goals. Due to language barriers, we have learnt to communicate using a range of methods. Naturally, body language is universal and has become an important part of communication.”
And personally? “It’s been difficult living and working apart (from Libby) as we’ve worked together for most of our married life,” Bruce said.
“We’re fortunate that we can both manage regular visits and speak daily. The communication systems in northern Kazakhstan are better than the coverage we get in the south-east South Australia."
“It’s helped that Libby has a real interest in this venture as well. We’ve made sacrifices to take on this project, but they’re far outweighed by the benefits. We feel privileged to have the opportunity to help build an industry in a foreign country.”
I then asked Libby, “Minus some dietary challenges, how is Bruce coping?”
“Bruce thrives on problem solving and this position has certainly thrown him some challenges that have really stretched him, which is exactly how he likes it,” Libby said
“Life is never dull in Kazakhstan.”
There is no doubt, that after years pass, most that travel and work abroad return home. And when they return, they bring a new perspective with fresh input from a knowledge and experience base far more comprehensive, understanding and vibrant than the one that they left.