Farmers are working 65 hours a week and struggling to recruit new staff. It’s time for industry to start collecting data on how labour shortages are affecting farmers’ mental health and wellbeing, says Cheshire dairy farmer Phil Latham.
At Dairy Tech I spoke to labour providers and industry representatives about the impact of the shortage of available quality labour and the future with a points-based immigration system.
As an industry, it’s clear we have been unsuccessful in getting the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to recommend putting dairy person on the shortage occupation list.
Given Brexit’s many faces, we may end up with a Home Secretary trying to enforce a reduction in immigration.
The problem is there is an assumption that farmers and farm employees are low skilled.
This is a disgraceful assumption oft made, but it may mean our roles are not valued by a points-based system and therefore recruitment continues to be hard.
We must ensure Government understands our needs and the problems with finding a solution.
Next January, we may be in a mess. With potentially less access to labour, we face a real problem in how to fill in the gap.
Essentially, we have four choices:
Robotics do not deliver a reduced cost of production on most farms and don’t liberate the staff claimed.
At least that’s what the labour provider I met suggested, and this view is supported by my bank manager and farm consultant.
So the Government agenda to automate is somewhat at odds with reality. More robots means more expensive milk.
We could invest more in wages, but profits are low and support through direct payments is set to decline.
Plus tariffs will need paying, and whatever the new costs of the friction with the EU for trade in dairy exports will be will ultimately come from the farmer’s pocket.
We could reduce the working week, but that means more staff on smaller wages, increasing not decreasing the amount of labour we need.
And the problem we have in certain parts of the country is the labour simply isn’t there. Don’t ask me, ask the labour providers.
We could do more ourselves, but that’s what we’re already doing. Farmers are often working 65 hours a week.
The enormous burden that puts on farmers, their teams and their families in many ways, including absence from family life, chronic fatigue and mental strain is a load no other sector is expected to bear outside of short periods.
This is a chronic failure of farming.
I’m sure it’s part of the problem we have in recruiting. Saying ‘farming is a way of life’ is an excuse for the long hours culture. It may well be a way of life, but it’s no way to live.
I challenged the labour provider about what data he collects to demonstrate the lack of availability of staff. He doesn’t collect it.
I asked the Farm Crisis Network if they ever collect empirical data on how labour shortages affect farmers’ stress levels.
They don’t collect any, because they don’t have shortage of staff as a key word and haven’t done any analysis on what lack of staffing means.
They do, however, know that it’s an issue.
The labour provider gave me an anecdote of a lady doing 19-hour days as her husband was suffering from stress and the farm hand in hospital. Between FCN and I think RABI, they paid temporary staff to go in and help for a while.
This is a terrible state of affairs.
We need a database of information on this for Defra so they can’t side step the very real issues farmers and their teams face in living with an acute lack of staff.
I would urge farming organisations to create surveys about recruitment, failure to recruit, quality of applicants and so on.
Phil can be found tweeting @PhilLatham