Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic are the principal reasons for the 500,000 shortfall in the UK’s farming workforce, according to a recent report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee.
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The government has acknowledged this labour challenge and put forward solutions which include tweaking policies relating to recruiting from overseas to fill the 12.2% vacancy rate.

In contrast, Paul Harris, a consultant with expertise in staff recruitment and retention on UK farms, reckons it is up to dairy farmers to take more ownership of the issues that are putting people off from working on their farms.

“The government report into the labour shortage focuses on resolving the access to overseas workers,” says Mr Harris, managing director of recruitment and staff management consultancy Real Success.

“While the macro issues still need to be addressed, they alone won’t resolve the systemic issues we have, in that UK staff simply don’t want to work in our sector and staff turnover is far too high.”

Farmers are the key to changing perceptions of the industry, he believes, and he has produced a comprehensive strategy to facilitate that.

The document addresses issues ranging from better communication and safer working practices to training and improving working conditions.

Mr Harris also wants action at an industry-wide level.

“There is a clear need for a farming-specific accreditation that recognises the efforts made by a farming business to support, develop and value their staff,” he says.

Solutions for staff recruitment and retention advocated in Mr Harris’ report are largely based on a shift in mindset by farmers on a range of key issues.

Cost

Farmers should see labour as an investment in the future of their business, and not a cost that must be reduced.

Although Mr Harris recognises that costs must be controlled, he sees labour as an essential investment.

“Thinking needs to shift from staff being a cost to a return on investment, similar to that when assessing investment in buildings, stock and machinery,” he says.

Communication

Poor communication skills by farm leaders is the primary reason why workers leave a business, according to Mr Harris.

He suggests seeking to understand the team and their differences and similarities in communication styles.

“A flexible approach, understanding that a business needs a mix of personality styles and behaviours to succeed, produces a better balance, reduced staff turnover and improved farm performance,” he says.

Staff appraisals

Commit to a review process for one hour every year for every staff member.

Run a structured meeting, with notes taken and shared afterwards with the worker.

Encourage openness and honesty from both sides and agree objectives and, if required, key targets.

“Staff will often bring ideas forward that may not have been considered before,” says Mr Harris.

Working hours

His research suggests that on some farms, workers are rostered for 12 days continuously before having a day off.

By having labour levels that are slightly higher than needed, staff, including owners and family members, are able to take time off, cover sickness absence and undertake training, staff meetings and off-farm events.

With calving underway, dairy farmers are being urged to plan ahead to combat feed shortages.

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