Agriculture needs to prime the pump

Agriculture needs to 'prime the pump' now


Opinion
Robbie Sefton asks are we doing enough in agriculture to develop the managerial expertise we need to manage increasingly large, complex farm businesses?

Robbie Sefton asks are we doing enough in agriculture to develop the managerial expertise we need to manage increasingly large, complex farm businesses?

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Are we doing enough in agriculture to develop the managerial expertise we need to manage increasingly large, complex farm businesses, Robbie Sefton asks.

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Every successful enterprise has good management at its core. That includes Apple, which recently became the world’s first trillion-dollar company, and the family farm. 

Successful entrepreneurs are applauded for building their enterprises single-handedly, but inevitably, entrepreneurial success is built on a solid foundation of good management and the largely unsung people who make it possible.

Are we doing enough in agriculture to develop the managerial expertise we need to manage increasingly large, complex farm businesses? 

That includes the family farm, a class of business that in many cases is evolving from something that can be run by a dedicated couple to an operation that demands a managerial layer.

Wee Waa cotton grower Daniel Kahl has been pondering this question. He made it the subject of his 2017 Nuffield Scholarship, and presented his findings at yesterday’s Cotton Conference on the Gold Coast, where I had the privilege of facilitating the session on “Creating pathways to cotton careers”. In a timely and deeply-considered talk, Daniel described the next generation of farm managers as “the missing middle”.

Farming enterprises have tended to be bifurcated into employers and hands-on workers. As the role of data, automation and other technologies grow in importance, and farming businesses become more sophisticated, the need for a managerial layer grows more acute. But where will those managers come from?

As Daniel put it, farming has developed a reputation for “low wages, long and inflexible working hours and few career development prospects and training opportunities”. Sensibly, those with management abilities often look for careers elsewhere.

His conclusion (in brief! – please read Daniel’s Nuffield report for a fuller picture) is that Australia needs to develop education pathways that from primary school, position agriculture as a viable, stimulating career path for those inclined to managerial roles.

Overcoming urban perceptions of agriculture as a “dull, outdated sector of the past” is essential, Daniel thinks. He cites a 2017 National Farmers Federation survey that found 83 per cent of Australians thought that agriculture had “little or no relevance to their lives”. That is not a good starting point for developing future talent.

Instead, Daniel suggests, we need to start considering strategies like America’s agriculture-focused 4-H (Head, Heart, Hands and Health) program, which provides “experiences where young people learn by doing”. Once young people understand that agriculture more than “sows, cows and ploughs”, they need to be provided with more appropriate qualification pathways.

Daniel’s underlying message is: agriculture won’t get the managers it needs by doing nothing. It needs to prime the pump, and it needs to start now.

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