Labour lessons from Oz

The time has come for us to learn some lessons from the most labour-efficient farmers in the world.

Labour lessons from Oz
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We were on a land on a 100ha sugarcane farm just outside Ingham in Queensland, Australia. Dwarfed by the tall cane, one of our study group asked the farmer: “How many full-time employees do you have?” Steve scratched his beard and said: “Well, mate, there’s me and the wife and John here” – he placed a hand on his son’s shoulder – “and Joe over there has been with us for more than 20 years now.” He pointed to the driver of the passing tractor.

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“When we run into trouble we call in a temp to help for a few days.”
“And what about your harvesting?” someone asked.
“That’s all done by contractors,” said Steve.
Turning to Bruce, a neighbour from back home with a farm about the same size as Steve’s, I quietly asked him how many full-time employees he had.
“About 23 in all,” he whispered sheepishly.
Four compared with 23!

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A few days later, on a farm about the size of ours, Bruce took delight in pointing out (quite loudly, I must say) that on our farm we had 12 times more workers than the farmer we were visiting. It was my turn to slink shamefacedly into the sugarcane. These are huge differences in manpower efficiency, and we were absolutely staggered by them. How did they do it? By the end of the trip, we had worked it out.

Firstly, there are so few people in Australia that there are simply not enough to handle tough out-of-doors farm labour jobs. Those prepared to do them command such high wages that no farmer uses them for a day longer than necessary. As a result, Australia’s farmers have become extremely clever and inventive in their use of labour-saving devices and mechanisation.

There are more brilliantly designed labour-saving farm implements and tools in an Aussie farm shed than you will ever see on an African farm. It’s a fact of life. If you have to do a tedious, menial job yourself, you quickly become clever and change the way it’s done – or develop a tool to help make it easier and do it faster. If you have an employee doing the job, well… you’ll never be quite as motivated to find a better way.

Untapped Creativity
After the recent farm labour cost increases, I’ve been hearing quite a bit of talk from farmers about getting time and motion studies done. There may be a place for these, but as the Aussies showed us, the best time and motion lesson of all is to tackle the job yourself for a while. You’ll unearth creativity in yourself you never realised you had. Alternatively, spend time watching people doing the job. You’ll soon see the wasted time and effort and be able to fix it.

Secondly, the high cost of Aussie labour has enabled entrepreneurs to set up successful contracting businesses to handle seasonal jobs for farmers. This is something we’ll see more and more of in South Africa and neighbouring countries – and about time too. Rising costs and the complexity and stress of administering a large labour force has created a great business opportunity for people to specialise in this area and provide a service to farmers. Contractors are also able to utilise their capital equipment far more than any single farmer can, and as a result, are able to do the job at much lower cost.

Finally, what struck us forcibly on our study group visit was the extent to which Aussie farmers co-operate with each other to share equipment and operations. While they’re highly individualistic, like farmers the world over, there’s a deep desire and willingness to share. When I asked one grizzled old-timer how, despite their many differences, farmers managed to get so much done by successful co-operation and sharing between them, he said: “It’s simply a matter of survival, mate.”
Perhaps we’ve also reached this point.

Contact Peter Hughes at
[email protected]. Please state “Managing for profit” in the subject line of your email.

This article was originally published in the 31 May 2013 issue of Farmers Weekly.