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By Professor Robin Stonecash

“There is power in collaboration and cooperation.”

In February this year, I was talking to someone whose property had survived the bushfires. They said they survived fires and floods – it couldn’t possibly get any worse – 2020 had to be better!  And then coronavirus hit.  Australia and New Zealand have come through the pandemic with relatively little damage.  As we begin to emerge from lockdown and isolation, what can we do to set ourselves up for success when things begin to return to normal?

For most farmers, the good news is that people needed to eat throughout the pandemic, so farm businesses didn’t shut down.  Of course, if you were in the business of shipping your product to China, the spat between the US and China had flow-on effects to Australian producers that hurt some farm businesses quite a lot.  So how do you re-emerge from COVID-19 and set your business up for success?  One answer is to rely on your community – for yourself, for your business, and for your industry.

For yourself

The stereotypical farmer doesn’t say much and doesn’t share much.  We know that suffering in silence doesn’t help – not you, your family or your business.  To help yourself, recognise that it’s okay to speak to others around you about your anxiety about the future.  Speak to people within your community or within your network.  Form a WhatsApp group with people in your sector.  Share the funny stories, and the anxious concerns.  You’ll find that others are often in the same boat and it helps to know you’re not alone.  An old saying: “A burden shared is a burden halved”.

For your business

Before everything opens up again, take some time to think about your business model – how do you buy inputs, how do you market your product, how do you sell?  There is power in collaboration and cooperation.  Create a growers group in your region to share ideas about how your business operates and how you could do better.  Some farmers are members of benchmarking groups.  This is great as it allows you to see how your business compare to others.  But you can do this informally as well, by finding a group of growers in a similar situation and comparing what you do.

You can go one step further and create a buying or leasing cooperative to lower your costs of machinery.  Think about how much time a tractor or harvester sits idle in the shed – you’re paying for something you may not use every day.  If you can find others who are in the same region, you can work out a schedule of use, and share in the costs and maintenance of the machinery.

The same goes for buying inputs.  If you are part of a formal or informal buying group, you can often buy your seed, fertiliser or chemicals more cheaply because you’re buying in bulk.  As things pick up, you may need to hire labour, but don’t have enough demand for a full time farmhand.  If there is another farmer in your district, you may be able to share the hiring of a farmhand, having them work two or three days a week with you, and a few days a week with someone else.

You can also create a cooperative to sell your product, giving you more bargaining power vis-à-vis a buyer, particularly if you are in a commodity market.

For your industry

With bushfires, floods and pandemics, Local, State and Federal Governments are all looking for ways to assist the bush.  The power of the collective voice is much stronger than the individual.  If you need assistance, get together in a group and go to the government with industry concerns.  Use social media to gather stories of strength and resilience from other farmers and show Government that with a little helping hand, you can come out of these times stronger.

Professor Robin Stonecash is one of Australia’s leading business educators and Dean of Business and Head of Southern Cross University’s Gold Coast Campus.