10 February 2013

Can We Be Good Farmers and Still Have a Life?

Get a bunch of farmers together and sooner or later someone will complain about lack of time.

Growing up on a dairy farm back in the 60s I well remember the sense of always being tied to the cows’ milking schedule. And holidays? Summer holidays were what everyone else had – instead we’d be making hay, milking cows, grubbing ragwort, spraying lupin and all the other high season activities – even irrigating if it was a dry summer. As with most dairy farmers, our real holidays were frosty and cold. And of course it’s not just dairy farmers who often feel as though they’re attached to their farm gates by a big ball and chain.

So is it possible to ‘have a life’ as a farmer, or do we have to accept that our time is not our own? Of course there are compensations which many city people long for, and try to acquire via lifestyle blocks. However, it still seems that a lot of farmers pine for more time they can call their own.

Years ago a woman in the health industry explained the need for time out in this way.

‘Think of everything you do as though it creates a brick or block of stress. After all, everything we do has a stress component – some of it good stress but still stress. Imagine that every brick goes toward building a brick wall in front of us. If we have regular time off, say about every six weeks, and take a long weekend or even a full two days with no work or responsibility, we keep that brick wall at a reasonable height. The stress levels never get too high; the surplus stress bricks tumble down.

‘On the other hand, if we just keep working non-stop with virtually no breaks, when finally we stop the body says, “Finally! Now you’ll listen!” We hit the wall, get sick, feel exhausted.’

In relation to work/life balance (or lack of it!), the following example is a sheep and beef farmer’s experience, but if you’re a diary farmer, there are some further suggestions below, and you’re bound to think of other ideas you can adapt.

I was chatting with Ross Richards, Northern Sheep Council chair. In the course of conversation the message from my health sector lady came up.

Ross and his wife thought about the advice. They realised that it had become a habit to put off taking a weekend away. They’d become experts at the ‘I haven’t got time’ story.

Suddenly reality hit home. Free family accommodation was available in an idyllic spot only a few hours away. Why were they making excuses?!

A week or so later the whole family took a long weekend off – headed up to the Coromandel to visit the parents. The weekend activities included pig hunting and lots of fun and relaxation. They came home recharged and fresh. The next week was busy, but that was fine – they’d had such a good rest it was easy to keep on top of the load.

If you’re a dairy farmer, could you hire a temp milker so you can get a break? Yes, I know the cows get used to their regular people. However, perhaps a group of farmers could find a few experienced shed hands who don’t want full-time jobs but are happy to work on a casual basis – maybe retired dairy farmers who’re keen to get out of their wives’ vegie gardens and chauffeur duties when she goes to town.

We’ve just chatted about occasional breaks away, Now, think about each week. How many of us work a seven-day week, fitting some work in every day, especially in these days of computers, cell phones, email?

Once Ross and his family bought their King Country farm, a few hours drive away from family, they found their working week quietly and insidiously stretching from a five-day week to a seven-day week. When they’d had family handy there were usually weekend things going on that encouraged five-day weeks. But when they only had to work around their own family unit it was amazing how often a few farm chores would slip into the weekend days – because they could.

Time out needs to be deliberate. Ross and Ruth are now putting a big cross through Sundays on their calendar and feeling much better and fresher for it.

As he shared this update, Ross reflected on the days when polo cross was very popular in the King Country. ‘It encouraged great time management skills for the local farmers,’ he said. ‘They had to get their work done during the week, because the weekend was devoted to polo cross.’

Let’s finish with one more example in a different sector. In 2006 I was all round New Zealand delivering 3 hour seminars for the small business clients of the National Bank via their Big Help for Small Business programme. This same issue constantly came up – it’s not just a farming matter. The conversation in Napier was particularly vigorous.

Dave owns an automotive care business.

‘I used to open Saturday mornings as well as the usual five days. One Saturday afternoon, as I rolled home exhausted yet again, it hit me like a bomb that every weekend I was too tired to do anything with my family. All I wanted was rest; it seemed the weekend had just begun when Monday showed up.

‘I got to thinking – if I felt like that, so probably did my staff. Was that fair to them? Then I asked myself: “What would happen if we didn’t open on Saturdays? Would it damage the business?”

‘I decided to take a bold step, risk losing business, and stop Saturday trading. That was five years ago. It has made no impact at all on the company profits.

‘Customers just organise themselves better. They make sure their automotive needs are handled during the week. I don’t stay open late either. The shop shuts at 5pm, and the customers fit in with me.’

Cows and sheep are not cars, but how can you apply this thinking to your specific farming habits?Can We Be Good Farmers and Still Have a Life?





Are your days too short, workload too large and work-life balance a pipe dream?

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