Get stuck in or get out

When poor business management is clouded by nostalgic longings ... we see farmers crying broke

NOTE: After fielding more than 100 comments on this article in a short space of time, Sam decided to respond to some of the points brought up in an article headed 'We are where we are, because of the choices we’ve made'. Click here to read his response.

HAVE you ever heard of a struggling takeaway shop owner putting their hand out or demanding the Minister for Small Business deliver government assistance in the form of tax breaks, grants and support?

Nope, they go broke with little consideration from anyone. So why do we tolerate whining farmers who are equally as poor at running their businesses?

I guarantee in every regional postcode across similar soil types, rainfall and water access you’ll find farmers with healthy farms, in a productive business operation - while over the fence, others will be struggling to make ends meet, on run-down properties with unfairly treated livestock in poor health.

“Management issues” is a very kind explanation for this, not forgetting both operations requiring hard work.

Farm management and business management are two completely different things - and the farmers that do both well are the ones who don't make the news.

They’re buying out their neighbours, leasing more land and getting better margins in their returns. They’re far more resilient to droughts and market fluctuations and with technology and constant learning they’re getting bigger and better at what they do.

But when poor business management is clouded by clinging to nostalgic belongings or hereditary ideals, then we see farmers wind up on the evening news crying broke.

Graziers and croppers seem the most common, as medium-term returns are perhaps easier to manage poorly - unlike intensive farming systems for pigs or chooks where planning, calculations and forecasts on a regular basis are critical.

The carbon-copy farm management styles of the early 1900s are bleeding wounds of the industry. Of course the media coverage doesn't help. It’s more interesting to see a farmer struggling with a sentimental asset, a ‘romantic’ lifestyle gone wrong than a takeaway shop owner who’s having to sell up or even threatening to shoot his potato cakes when it all goes pear-shaped.

Through the media, there’s a consumer perception that farmers are “whingeing”, “luckless” or “in-need”. As a result, we get a consumer who feels pity and negative emotion for that stereotype (along with that image of an old man in a shabby hat standing in a field).

Not a good motivator.

From here a bad attitude is brewing, with some farmers saying consumers have to “be thankful” for what farmers do - as if it’s the consumers fault.

It’s always someone else’s fault.

It’s easier to blame governments, consumers and retailers than work out that simple equation – that income must exceed expenses.

It’s no secret farming is made up of good years, bad years and everything else; it’s been happening for hundreds of years. So why with all the education, technology and knowledge out there are people still not ready for the untimely but inevitable challenges we face?

"We are not a farming family, we are a business - (if) you act like business people and you get treated like business people and if you think like business people, you will be successful," banana grower Barrie Mackay told ABC's Landline earlier this year.

I once heard that the definition of stupidity was doing the same thing again and again and wondering why you don’t get a different result.

So let’s swallow some pride, make some decisions and take full responsibility for farm and business management. Our ag industry is in need of some tough love.

  • Sam Trethewey is a third generation farmer from Tasmania, now based in Victoria. Sam's message is 'think clearly, get muddy': inviting everyone to be clearer in and on farming by rolling up their sleeves, learning and taking action.

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    Sam Trethewey

    Sam Trethewey

    grew up farming down south and now commentates on agriculture across Australia
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    READER COMMENTS

    Pete
    10/07/2013 8:04:48 AM

    Wow, This has really hit a nerve. We are all looking too far past all the points Sam made. Debt? If your struggling with it, you may be paid too much, maybe you underestimated the risks? Costs out stripping revenue? Don't spend so much money, no V8 cruisers (Great wall Diesel), no $20k campdrafting horses. The end game is this: If you pay no tax, you're not making money. Droughted? What happened to putting something away for a rainy day (or a not so rainy year)? There have been some excellent points made. Noboby has a gun to your head, If you dont like the job get another.
    Captain Average
    10/07/2013 9:44:47 AM

    Bosco, my advice is to be the average. Be average at farming, be average at business management and be average with your stocking rates, yield expectations and exposure to risk and in the long run you will make it through quite happily with lots of sleep - tried and true agricultural model. This article has bought the heat onto Sam as he obviously expected and no matter what he wrote it was design to antagonize one section, empower another and turn off the rest. I just wonder who he was trying to empower or generate discussion with...
    gabriel
    10/07/2013 12:07:22 PM

    Your right Sam, there shouldn't be anybody farming in northern Australia. It's just to far away and harsh for safe, best business, farming practices. I mean the mere fact that they are there and making a go of it, is insulting to the gutless. And look how easy it was to harpoon their industry. They should have known how irresponsible ludwig was and planned for it.Yep the sooner they're sent broke, the sooner foreigners can take over. They wouldn't whinge about a little thing like that. And those old farmers don't even understand, meddling and opinion is now modern culture. Poor Form.
    Truth Hurts
    10/07/2013 12:44:46 PM

    You're right on the money Sam. A well written article that calls it like it is. Rural Australia & rural industries are always talking themselves down, very unlikely to attract the human resources & capital they require. I like your message, "get on with it or get over it".
    Murraypete
    10/07/2013 1:41:24 PM

    Well Sam I guess you are now an expert on Australian agriculture and all the people running it. So the next step for you I would say is to become an expert consultant on Australian agriculture earning $200,000 per year. Sam highlights the pathetic thinking toward farmers.
    Gunsmoke
    10/07/2013 6:05:35 PM

    Have to agree with a lot that has been written, when I purchased my own farm 7 years ago I never counted on low water allocations, locusts, mice plagues, floods etc, it has not been easy but I Am still here I have never asked for hand outs but have accepted them when offered. Though knowing full wellI have to live within the farms earnings and not to buy the latest farm toys.
    Zero till
    10/07/2013 7:19:02 PM

    Very good point Sam. You never here about the farmers who are happy with how there business is going. I also will never buy a Great Wall ute, my old hilux will do!
    City Chic
    10/07/2013 9:20:28 PM

    Gday Sam, I'm new to AG, and recently have met many interesting people, most born and bred on the land with excellent hands-on skills with little or no confidence in business principles. They favor tried and true methods over technologies of today. IT solutions are available however are costly and reliant on satellites in remote areas. Those that are successful have both brawn and brain to achieve outstanding results and provide the next generation with good standing for the future. If we were all blessed with both I am sure the whingeing would fade. Share your knowledge and help others grow.
    Bigpen
    11/07/2013 4:45:44 AM

    Right on the money Sam. Like any business farming can be profitable for those who manage for profit. Losses manage themselves.
    Flaming-go
    11/07/2013 6:31:11 AM

    I remember when, I optimistically saw management issues in black & white. The opening gambit stating SB owners don't stick their hand out is very wrong, indeed the general difference is SB do not own their production centre, so with a lesser asset base they go to the wall quicker. There is no doubt ag production provides scope to improve productivity, diversify production or routes to market. I do believe concentrating on improved productivity, risk management and discussion with your financier allows business to play another day. But ag's control of policy is disappearing & thats an issue
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    Get MuddyTo think clearly in farming and about farming, you need to get muddy - commit, roll up your sleeves and get involved. SAM TRETHEWEY gets stuck into some of the issues facing those on the land.

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