Where to now?

Rear view shot of a man looking out at his sheep in a New Zealand farm

Control what you can and plan for the unexpected has been the mantra for New Zealand’s agribusinesses.

With ongoing uncertainty due to COVID’s unpredictability, the focus has been on the here and now. Some of that focus has been on weathering the storm. But pleasingly, equal focus has been applied to taking stock and building additional resilience during a period of strong commodity prices and profitability across the sector, and it bodes well for the future of our primary sector.

Throughout New Zealand’s farming regions, we’ve seen agribusinesses taking a hard look at their operations, shoring up balance sheets and developing plans to improve efficiency and tackle increasing compliance requirements.

It marks a distinct change from a decade ago. With the backdrop of COVID and knowing the current sweet spot of strong food prices and low interest rates won’t last forever, it’s great to see agribusinesses making early and decisive decisions paying down debt to ensure a stronger Balance Sheet, planning for growth or diversification, or ensuring they are well positioned to meet ongoing environmental, regulatory and compliance changes.

Compliance is a major consideration which remains foremost on our farmers’ minds. Our primary sector is facing a level of change we’ve not seen before, and farmers need to be prepared over the coming years to develop and deliver farming systems to meet increasingly stringent environmental measures.

For some, this cost is seen as an imposition. But many know that compliance ultimately increases the resilience of their businesses to severe weather, changes in consumer preferences, helps protect the land and water on which they farm and creates a more sustainable future for their business.

Taking time to plan now will help agribusinesses withstand, and even thrive, from the significant change impacting the industry, but one issue remains challenging – staffing.

Every industry has felt the impacts of COVID. On one hand it has provided our primary sector sustained consumer demand, the ability to operate no matter the alert levels and further cemented its importance as a key driver of New Zealand’s economy. But on the other, border restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID, have meant migrant workers are not available in the numbers they once were.

Whether it’s horticulture, dairy, or sheep and beef, agribusinesses are finding it tough to recruit staff. This is particularly acute in the dairy industry with many farms forced to manage the Spring season a staff member or two down.

DairyNZ have developed a platform called Dairy Connect. Aside from connecting farmers with farmers for advice on all manner of topics, it’s also helping connect farmers with potential recruits.

But what about other sectors and dairy farmers who don’t feel compelled to use this platform? In the competition for people, farmers have an opportunity to establish a point of difference and increase the attractiveness of their operations to potential employees.

We’ve been speaking with many farmers in recent months who, noting the labour pressures and competitive environment to find and retain good staff, have set themselves ambitious goals to earn reputations as the best employers in their district. We’re seeing farmers very focused on offering quality housing, a supportive and safe working environment, potential learning and development opportunities, on top of competitive salaries.

Attracting staff really is a case of exploring every available option and proudly talking about the many great things that come from being employed and involved in New Zealand’s primary sector.

If history has proven anything, New Zealand’s farmers have met countless challenges head on and prevailed. And at this moment, with prices high and our primary sector in good shape, I’m confident that we can keep moving forward.