By Chris Lewis, Federated Farmers employment spokesperson
OPINION: Farmers would have been largely unsurprised by the recent dip in unemployment figures. The almost 800 jobs advertised in the dairy industry pretty much every week since Covid-19 reared its ugly head is a clear sign that New Zealanders are not out there clamouring for work, or at least not in the agricultural sector.
Sheep and beef, arable and horticulture are all seeing similar issues, with experienced staff hard to find – and retain. This is reflected in the most recent Federated Farmers/Research First farm confidence survey, with a net 36 per cent of respondents reporting it is now harder to recruit skilled and motivated staff.
With some border exemptions for skilled agricultural roles such as machinery operators, vets, pregnancy scanners and shearers, the bulk of concern is now coming from the dairy industry. Since last winter Federated Farmers and other industry bodies have been signaling that there is a significant labour shortage looming in the dairy sector. With the borders still closed to migrants (a traditional key component of the dairy workforce) and those migrants still here continuing to head home over time, the workforce is looking in poor shape for the coming season.
Government and industry have committed serious efforts to try and attract Kiwis to work on farms. Campaigns such as ‘Go Dairy’ and ‘Mana in Mahi’ have had a muted response. The successful Federated Farmers and MSD ‘get Kiwis on farm’ starter pack promotion, which offers new recruits and workers displaced from other jobs by the pandemic a complete kit of Kaiwaka wet weather gear if they take up a permanent farm role, is now in its second round. But numbers are still in the hundreds and many vacancies on farms remain unfilled.
Despite this gloomy scenario, there are still some in the agricultural industries who are hopeful for a greater influx of New Zealanders over time. Farmers have long plugged the freedom of the job, being outside in the fresh air and doing an honest day’s work. But with 90% of Kiwis still living and working in urban areas, this isn’t doing the trick and we need to look to promote the other benefits of life on the farm.
With our largest city in yet another lockdown, there must be some young families looking around at their 400m2 section with a million-dollar mortgage and wondering if there is a better option. Many urban dwellers spend over 50% of their income on housing and with a rental and sale supply crisis across the country, the job and house scenario of farming is something we should be promoting strongly. Over 80% of farm employers provide accommodation, a benefit we need to advertise at its real market value.
The urban price of living is also on the rise and what rural people take for granted is a serious cost to those in the city. Most farmers’ eyes would water if they saw what a leg of lamb or a trailer of split firewood sells for in the suburbs. 2020 saw a fruit and vegetable price increase of almost 9 percent, with overall food price inflation of 2.9 percent. This must make the big vege garden and half a beast as part of the employment package seem more attractive. Add all of these benefits together and the advantages of living on farm stack up pretty well.
More and more farmers are also looking at their own farming systems and taking steps such as improving rosters or going to once a day milking to make farm roles more attractive. Senior and management positions on farm are increasingly well paid, usually with a big house and backyard, no commute and both parents’ home for lunch and dinnertimes with the kids.
So much of what our urban workforce is worrying about has solutions that can be found in the country. As an industry we need to start promoting those on-farm benefits that we all take for granted, get the total value package of our advertised roles right and see if more urban New Zealanders might consider making the big shift to the country. So a shout out to all those farmers who are already taking a lead on this front.