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

    Flaming-go
    11/07/2013 6:33:37 AM

    Also, whne quoting Mackay bananas, you should acknowledge the wealth they initially started with and that they operate in a market closed to imports supplying over 20% of Australia's bananas. Is the implication that we should only have corporates?
    Interested Observer
    11/07/2013 7:36:06 AM

    Good stirring article Sam. Reading the latest ag publications there is all the trials showing strive for higher yields. Not one mention of profitability. It's about profitability, profitability comes from managing risk and farming is jam packed with risk. Don't plan for tomorrow like it was yesterday. Droughts, fires and floods. Had all in the last 7 years. Their risks that needs to be identified and managed for. If they don't happen its happy days, if they do you- have a strategy in place.
    Jen from the bush
    11/07/2013 7:54:37 AM

    I though most SB only rented their place of business and came with water electricity sewage connected and a bitumen road out front. That being so when a tap leaks they call the landlord. It's his problem. Doesn't quite work like that for us We pay huge rents + rates on what our country could possibly produce but then have to spend 100K/water, 2K/km fence etc etc to get it into production. Hellooo Pretty big difference
    qlander
    11/07/2013 7:57:21 AM

    ‘No risk’ lending to a very high risk industry has created a massive debt problem, and pushed farm prices way passed their real value. This is one of the main issues, and won’t be easy to fix. PS Farmers are not the only ones who will accept loans they can’t repay if they’re offered to them. Whole nations have been doing the same thing, not least the good old US of A.
    qlander
    11/07/2013 9:06:56 AM

    The Elephant in the room here, that no one wants to acknowledge while they’re lining up to chastise farmers for not being able to perform miracles. Is that and entire generation have taken the offered advice, and gotten out. Sooner or later some-one is going to have to think about what consequences this will have for the nation over the next few decades.
    qlander
    11/07/2013 9:23:19 AM

    The article is deliberately provocative and written from the ignorance and arrogance of youth. Intensive farms are easier to manage than extensive, because the weather is taken out of the equation DUH! (Old saying – The main difference between a good manager, and a bad one is 150mm of rain) Also I’m not sure that the boards of recent corporate failures would agree that they were use early 1900’s management styles. However I do agree that banks who lend money the people who can’t pay it back should be forced the wear the consequences, and not be bailed out by the tax payer.
    beeffarmerjulie
    11/07/2013 9:27:50 AM

    I think you have some very valid comments - many of which I wholeheartedly agree. We need to look at farming as a business - if you don't get the return on investment - then don't go into the next property etc HOWEVER what I do disagree with is that how farming is different to many other industries - we are price TAKERS not Makers - we cannot determine we want "X" amount for our product such as a takeaway shop. AND Gov't does at times play a major role in how our industry works - the Live Export Ban is a classic example. Consumers need to realise we provide CLEAN food - if you import U won't.
    Nev
    11/07/2013 11:35:46 AM

    Curious article, which I can only assume is largely tongue in cheek.
    Amy
    11/07/2013 1:06:00 PM

    Is the reason for young people moving away from agriculture because there's no money in it, genuinely, or because farmers, media (including rural), etc, keep focussing on the negatives + those who can't turn a profit, and not championing those out there who are profitable, and are loving every minute of their career in agriculture? It just seems to me that we always hear the whingeing and whining - including on newspaper pages - and our experience with farming is quite the opposite. We wouldn't change our career for the world! There is so much to offer younger gen in ag!!
    Jezza yass
    11/07/2013 1:08:09 PM

    Cyclones wipe out tourist resorts,cold summers wipe out the icecream people and China wipes out manufacturing,and India wipes out IT.Makes farming look safe as houses.
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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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