This topic will be discussed as part of our online bonfire on August 25 at 7:30pm, “Strengthening Your Support Team: Rural Financial Counselling Service.”
Fruit growers have been hit by labour shortages under Covid-19 as well as a rise in several input costs. After a stressful and mentally challenging 2020 citrus harvest, Michael listened to the advice of a friend, who convinced him to talk to a rural financial counsellor. Now, the current harvest season is looking very different and their mental health is back on track.
Agriculture is booming in Australia; cattle prices have skyrocketed, the drought has broken and even the price of wool has picked up. But for citrus growers like Michael, who is based near Mildura, the past two years have been incredibly tough.
While the impact of COVID-19 on agriculture has been relatively minimal for other farming industries, fruit growers have been struck with severe labour shortages as well as a rise in the cost of diesel, fertiliser and packing materials.
Michael would normally have a stream of backpackers to pick oranges at harvest time, and despite the Federal Government’s efforts to bring in Pacific Island workers to help, there’s still not enough pickers to go around.
“Last year, we did our best with the staff we had, but we couldn’t get all the fruit off the trees quick enough, which meant oranges was simply left to rot,” Michael said.
“We ended up making a substantial loss. I’ve been growing fruit for 15 years and while I have broken even a few times before, that’s the first time I’ve ever made a loss. Seeing the piles of wasted fruit, was just heartbreaking. We were anxious for what the next season would bring, and wondering if we would be able to pull through. Managing the farm and dealing with labour shortages, let alone during a pandemic, took a serious toll on our mental health.” he said.
So, at the start of 2021, when it was becoming clear that Covid-19 was not going away, Michael decided he would take action to prevent some of the stress of the previous year.
“My mate, who is also a grower, said he had spoken to a rural financial counsellor, who helped him with forward budgeting,” he said.
“My initial thought was, no, I don’t need that, I’ve been running a successful business for years before COVID, it’s not for me. But I got over my pride and it’s been the best thing I could have done.”
A local counsellor from the Rural Financial Counselling Service Victoria helped Michael and his family to plan ahead, factoring in the increase in input costs, as well as the high likelihood of another harvest labour shortage. They also helped him to apply for government grants.
Ultimately this alleviated much of the stress Michael had been feeling about having a lack of control over his business during the pandemic, as well as the uncertainty over how to make organisational changes in the workplace, to deal with yet another difficult season. Worksafe Victoria has identified these as workplace factors which can contribute to poor mental health – and has more information on ways to improve stress in the workplace here.
Michael says speaking with a rural financial counsellor completely changed his mindset.
“Instead of going into harvest and just hoping for the best, I had a plan. Then I could brief the staff about how we were going to tackle this season with fewer people and how I had structured the daily tasks differently to cope.”
Michael said this also helped reduce the stress his staff were feeling, who were concerned about the impact labour shortages would have on their workload.
“We’re in full harvest swing now. And it’s always a busy time…but I have been able to set achievable targets for the staff and the business as a whole, which has actually helped to increase productivity.”
While Michael says this season certainly won’t be his best year, the business will be able to get through this difficult time, with a small profit.
The Rural Financial Counselling Service is a free, independent and confidential service operating across Victoria (with similar services in other states).
“When you call the RFCS, you’ll get a counsellor who lives and works locally and is a specialist in local conditions,” Wayne Stephen, Senior Business Financial Counsellor at the RFCS said.
Wayne Stephen said the aim is to get the farmer to a better place.
“A better place could be a better asset to liability ratio, a better production system, a better succession plan, a better relationship with banks and creditors, a better relationship with family members, and a better relationship with yourself,” he said.
Michael says he is certainly a lot happier, less stressed and feeling optimistic about the future.
“I can’t control what happens with Covid-19, but I now have control over my business again.”
When it comes to running the family farm, investing in ways of working that support goodmental health is not only good for your family and staff, but it’s good for business too.
The NCFH is supporting farmers just like you to manage and respond to work-related risks that impact on workplace mental health – these are factors in your work that can affect an employee’s mental health and include high job demands, low job control, low role clarity and more. Managing these factors, means decreasing the risk of work-related stress, which can prevent physical injury, mental injury or even both at the same time.
Find out more about being mentally safe on the farm at www.farmerhealth.org.au/campfire.
This blog is part of the Primary Producer Knowledge Network led by the National Centre for Farmer Health to promote mentally healthy workplaces. Campfire, part of The Primary Producer Knowledge Network, is funded by the Victorian State Governments WorkSafe WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.
Join the online bonfire session, “Strengthening Your Support Team: Rural Financial Counselling Service” on August 25 to hear more from Financial Counsellor Malcolm Rowe about his recommendations and strategies for a mentally healthy workplace, and how the RFCS can work with you to prevent work-related stress.
*Primary producers featuring in this blog are fictional, but based on research interviews with farmers, and developed with the assistance of the National Centre for Farmer Health