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.

  • Page:
    Sam Trethewey

    Sam Trethewey

    grew up farming down south and now commentates on agriculture across Australia
    Date: Newest first | Oldest first


    Jezza yass
    11/07/2013 1:42:39 PM

    Jen from the bush,a small shop in Canberra will cost you 2000 p/w plus costs,its the same for everyone.
    Andrew Lethbridge
    11/07/2013 2:32:10 PM

    As a young primary producer, I am astounded by the absolute cockiness, brashness and gall with which this article has been written. Especially knowing it has been written by a young rural person with such background. The timing of this article is not only disrespectful to many producers doing it 'tough' (most of which has been govt inflicted over the years), but many northern producers will find the timing of this article utterly demeaning. I find it quite amazing that someone who can write about "nostalgic belongings and hereditary ideals" can identify himself as a 'third' generation farmer.
    11/07/2013 2:46:00 PM

    Sam, you have made my day ! far too long many farmers have attributed to the 'poor me' out with the hand, in with the gov grant. Once money is received the fences are still broken, machinery unrepaired and sheds standing on one leg, perhaps the new Prado, Toyota vehicles & holidays are to compensate for the 'bad year', Things need to change, the farmer under the "radar" proves it can be done. True re small business, yet we do not hear about suicides that occur in this sector.Well done Sam, definatley the new face & pen to represent our ag industry
    11/07/2013 4:36:22 PM

    There are too many farmers & we are experiencing the pain of more natural attrition. Australian farming has always been in the tonnage business, not the value creating business. All the industry ever talks about is productivity. Constantly focusing on productivity at the farm level without giving attention to the overall path to market (value chain) is not sustainable. You will not make it on productivity alone, unless you are simultaneously adding the value that will generate the profits required to pay for the expensive production system. The end result is the industry can not sustain
    11/07/2013 4:46:05 PM

    so many of the same businesses, all trying to produce the same thing in such a fragmented industry. Put simply, it is now neighbor versus neighbor to survive. Regrettably, we have now lost the chance to add value because our industry did not globalise aggressively enough when we had the chance, penetrating newer and wider markets with value added products. Food, wool or resources, we have always been content to stuff as much as we can onto a boat at the going price. We are not going to be anyone's food bowl, only their food quarry.
    12/07/2013 6:51:35 AM

    This the first time my comments at farmonline have been censured. Not a good look, Rule No1 of being a grown up ‘Don’t dish it out, if you can’t take it back’
    More for Me. I Guess.
    12/07/2013 7:18:49 AM

    Isn't it interesting to see the split in this forum. It shows we are in the midst of change within agriculture. For me, I see opportunity, now building my brand around my own produce from the farm and taking control of my business. Its possible for many to do, but get in and get into it before the opportunities are gone. For me, I'm 3 years into a 10 year plan and a 4th generation farmer. I'm no longer a price taker, only because I control the price. Find your niche and succeed! By the way I haven't had to buy the farm next door to do it! improve your business with the tools you have!
    12/07/2013 8:03:41 AM

    Interestingly I saw on the news the other day farmers complaining that they have had too good a growing season and now aren't getting enough $ for their produce due to over supply.
    12/07/2013 8:35:41 AM

    Whilst the takeaway business owner may not get support, the Australian car industry seems to get massive support from tax payer funds. Why is this?. So why wouldn't we give a certain level of support to farmers to achieve food security especially when climatic factors severely affect their productivity. There has to be a sensible midway point somewhere in this debate.
    100% Farmer
    12/07/2013 10:59:26 AM

    Excellent article.
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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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