Improving the choices we make, for a successful farming business

This topic will be discussed as part of our online Bonfire Q&A on March 23rd at 7:30pm, “Decision Making: Thinking About Your Thinking”

Steve thought he had things under control – but he had just lost his third staff member in less than 12 months.

And it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Shearing started in three weeks; and with his new share in a next-generation $50,000 bull; he wanted to start flushing his elite females next week.

Three staff members, three strikes. Steve was thinking it could be his fault, and starting to recognise that during this pretty challenging year he may have made some poor staffing decisions. Not only taking on inexperienced staff, but also setting some fairly unreasonable demands based on their skill levels. Maybe he needed to put some more planning and time into recruiting and training his staff before he got a reputation as a bad boss and lost the potential for getting help at all.

Right now, he could feel his stress levels rising—thinking about how he would get through the next month – and try to find a new worker at the same time.

The Grains Research Development Corporation has been thinking about the same problems, and its report shows staffing issues are a constraint for many in agriculture (

GRDC says human resources management is an essential component of any business; but is often undervalued (and misunderstood) as employers have evolving responsibilities to staff and regulations to follow, especially as a result of COVID-19 control measures.

It says planning for labour hire and managing employees fairly and appropriately can set an employer up for success – or not.

And the hidden damage of Steve’s problems did not end with him overthinking all those things going wrong.

Three staff members lost in such quick succession also ate away at Steve’s sense of self-worth, and his confidence to tackle the next job.
In effect, it can start mental health challenges, or compound existing ones.

Making agricultural workplaces mentally healthy impacts so many – the farmer, his or her family, their staff (and their families) and the people with whom they interact in their various roles.

While that might leave you thinking it is a mental minefield, it starts with identifying the factors in the design and management of our work that can positively or negatively impact a farmer’s, or employee’s, mental health; such as:

  • High work demands
  • Low levels of control
  • Poor workplace support
  • Poor organisational change management
  • Poor organisational justice
  • Low role clarity
  • Role conflict
  • Poor workplace relationships

Good overall decision-making drives a healthy and resilient business, and requires the ability to think clearly.

When we talk about decision-making – it seems to be influenced by the head (logical, rational, calculation), the heart (emotional, values) and the gut (intuition).

Some farmers like to make all their operational and business decisions alone, others use their work team or family to make decisions. Some also bring in consultants to help.

Running a farm business can be a complex work environment; with a lot of different stressors … and often a lot of factors outside of our control, no matter what we think (,-plans-and-publications/production-advice-may-2020/how-can-i-make-better-farm-management-decisions).

Being proactive and making decisions early should be part of every farm business plan. Behavioural Scientist and Acting Director of the National Centre for Farmer Health Dr Alison Kennedy explains that there is plenty of evidence to show that making good decisions is very difficult during periods of high stress:

“People often make riskier choices and don’t think through the full consequences of decisions. There’s also evidence to show that high stress levels can encourage shift people’s decision making strategies from those that are goal-directed to those that are based on habit. From a farming context, we know that avoiding making any decisions can be just as damaging as making poor decisions. Many of us will know stories about farm succession decisions that have been put off for too long, resulting in family conflict and financial difficulty. Others will know of experiences where farmers have avoided making decisions like destocking in the face of impending drought, only to be forced to sell stock in poor condition when the market is already down.”

Adrian Smith, senior NSW land services officer, says the differences between the top 20% of profitable farmers and the rest is their ability to think clearly; make the right decision at the right time.

But don’t think that comes naturally, Smith says making good decisions is a skill that can be learnt even though making decisions is something we all do nearly every waking minute – often without thinking at all.

Making informed, rational and practical decisions is integral to a successful farm business.

Just because we make decisions all the time, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we are good at making them!

But if you stop and think about it, you realise there are ways we can improve the choices we make.

We can listen to the experiences of others, and think about how we can learn from their experiences ( Before you think too much on your problems, think about the options and support that is available – it’s more than worth thinking about

Injuries on the farm can lead to stress, long-term health concerns and loss of income or even fatalities, so preventing them from happening is the best way of protecting your mental health. When it comes to running the family farm, investing in mental health initiatives is not only good for your family and workers, 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 farm at

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.

You can join the online bonfire session, “Decision Making – Thinking About Your Thinking” on March 23rd at 7:30pm.

*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