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Farmers must learn to share

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There are all kinds of farmer jokes out there, like the one likening farmers to jet airplanes -- they both stop whining when they touch down in Hawaii.

Despite their reputation for complaining, it's pretty clear most farmers enjoy what they do for a living. They love being on the land, being independent and working outdoors. They enjoy the seasonal nature of the work and the challenge of sparring with natural forces to harvest a crop.

It seems the very things that farmers love most about farming are also the qualities that make them bad bosses. They like being producers more than they like being managers, and it shows in how they treat their employees. That in turn shows in the already critical and growing labour gap facing the sector.

The Conference Board of Canada says that's a problem on two fronts. Nearly half of Canada's farmers are over 55 and farm sizes -- and the workload -- continue to grow.

"There is a widespread perception among the farmers interviewed the quality of hired labour available is poor -- in terms of employee skills and work ethic -- which feeds into a further reluctance to employ people outside of the immediate family," says the CBOC report Seeds of Success: Enhancing Canada's Farming Enterprises.

It works both ways. When it comes to employment standards and benefits, the farm sector lags behind other businesses. A CBOC survey found less than one-third of farmers consider employee satisfaction as critical to their business success. But increasingly, it is.

"Despite the advantages of farm family human capital, as a farming operation becomes bigger, it often must bring in outside help so that farm managers can spend more time managing operations than performing labour -- a critical step to achieving even greater levels of business performance," the report by Erin Butler and James Stuckey said.

The country's largest farmers are making the transition. About two-thirds of the country's highest gross-revenue farms report using hired labour, compared with 23 per cent of small-revenue farms.

However, most farms in this country are between those extremes.

The authors found the largest revenue farms in Canada aren't the most profitable. "The profitability 'sweet spot' for Canadian farms is the $250,000 to $499,999 revenue range, in terms of percentage of farms in the top two profitability quartiles," the report says.

Mid-sized farms in that "sweet spot" are increasingly boxed into a tight spot operationally and financially because they keep all the farm work to themselves.

They'd rather over-invest in technology and equipment to handle additional workload rather than bring in outside help, a short-term decision with long-term implications for their cost structure.

"Many farmers do not see hiring employees as a viable way to support growth -- a fact that typically restricts farming businesses to the limits of farm family human capital," the report said.

Given family-owned and operated businesses are apt to be the most profitable in Canadian farming, they must be doing something right. The report underscores the balance farmers must strike between economies of scale and optimal scale.

"Improved interpersonal and relationship management skills are important to overcoming many of the challenges of managing capital, marketing and people. The image of the farmer as an independent and solitary figure is increasingly at odds with the realities of successful farming business," the report said.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council published a report in 2009 saying the labour shortage on Canadian farms was double the rate for other industries. It predicted by 2013 that shortage would double to 51,000 non-seasonal positions.

It seems if farmers are going to continue having fun at farming, they might have to learn how to share.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 B9

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