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

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

    Richard the realist
    9/07/2013 4:39:07 AM

    Sam poor Sam, before you try journalism you need to get muddy and learn something. Go North mate and see for yourself the result of this Govts decisionmaking then tell me how planning, calculating and forecasting would have helped the cattleman be profitable when there industry deals with an immediate ban. Better sneak in quietly though and don't stay long, keep moving too, harder target. Nice hat.
    Cocky
    9/07/2013 6:38:35 AM

    The only blokes I know making money out of farming, paid cash for the farm and treat it like the hobbie that it is. it is all the " industry best practice blokes" around here that are bankrupt or well on their way. Professionalism has bugger all to do with it when you are at the mercy of a processing sector only interested in its own profit. If you think you can reinvent the wheel in ag, look back at history, it's all been done before, just this time the next gen are just getting out.
    Dickytiger
    9/07/2013 7:44:16 AM

    Well said Sam. Some clear thinking for a change. Message to Richard and Cocky - if you can't cut it, get out. It's nobody else's fault.
    Bosco
    9/07/2013 7:52:53 AM

    Richard, your implication that Sam will be shot for having an opinion is nothing short of disgusting. Thank you for making his point. No wonder the younger generations view agriculture as the industry that time forgot.
    Cocky
    9/07/2013 8:08:57 AM

    Hey Dickytiger, my mob have been cutting it for 160 years and still are. Doesn't mean we can't see what's going on around us.
    GMcF
    9/07/2013 8:09:44 AM

    One born every generation. Going to show the world how it is done. Watch out for Murphy Sam, you could be in for a fall. Get some runs on the board mate before you let loose with the mouth.
    holisticmatt
    9/07/2013 8:12:05 AM

    Great column Sam. In our business we have eliminated unnecessary overheads, improved our grazing management to reduce variable costs and have made a profit every year for the last five. To the negative sticks in the mud out there in quote John Maynard Keynes: "The difficulty lies not in accepting new ideas, but escaping from old ones."
    john
    9/07/2013 8:26:40 AM

    Good analysis of the problem, many farmers have a positive future operating productive farm businesses, and the decision to join or form a business discussion group might be a lot better than hoping for farm assistance.
    Young farmer
    9/07/2013 8:30:57 AM

    Thank you Sam for sharing the tough love. Its amazing how many farmers that have a handle on the farm and business management fly under the radar. Nice hat...seriously...for once I'd like to see a farmer pictured in the Australian without the torn and filthy clothes, leaning against the fencepost - I wonder could we just once take the opportunity to convey a sense of professionalism to the broader community???!!!
    cv
    9/07/2013 8:50:28 AM

    A good article. A couple of other things, 1. why do people expect to make money farming, look back in history or around the world, farmers were and are typically poor. 2. consumers don't have a connection to their food anymore, its all about convenience and product perception.
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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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