Analysis: If farmers want to sort their staff problems they need to get real about wages and conditions


Labour for picking daffodils on Darragh McCullough's farm comes from eastern Europe
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Farmers are bad employers. Not in the sense that they are difficult or exploit employees - it's more to do with their unrealistic expectations.

All the time I hear about the struggle to get 'good lads' to work on farms. I've been there myself. Every spring I need to get over 30 staff to pick daffodils.

All through the depths of the recession, when the country was burdened with unemployment hitting 15pc, I received ONE call from an Irish person looking for a job.

This was despite the fact that I had a 26 acre field of daffodils blooming beside a road that over 20,000 cars drove past every day. It was effectively a 26 acre billboard that said 'work available here'.

People queued up, but not to look for work - they were looking to take photographs.

Rather than agonise over the reality that Irish people have higher expectations than picking flowers all day for the minimum wage, I focused my search in Lithuania, Slovakia and Romania.

Almost all of my staff now hail from these regions.

Many have little or no English, but they make up for it by being willing workers. Most are from farms or farming areas and some know more about livestock and crops than I do myself.

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The Romanian Cure

About a year ago one of my sheep was on her side with severe bloat.

I initially thought that she was a goner in the sense that a sick sheep invariably ends up being a dead one.

But one of the Romanian lads - who hasn't a word of English - gestured to me what looked like a suggestion to slit her neck.

After reassuring me that he wasn't about to kill the sheep there and then, he produced a knife and cut a nick in the ewe's ear.

I rolled my eyes at what I was sure was a hopeless Romanian 'cure'.

But he persisted, cupping some of the blood from the ewe's ear and rubbing it into the sheep's mouth.

Within minutes she was licking her lips, and suddenly struggling to stand again. Setting her upright, he then made a small incision just under her nose.

Licking furiously, the blood seemed to act as some kind of internal anti-foamer, and she was as right as rain within the hour.

He simply nodded at me with satisfaction and headed back to whatever job he had been previously doing.

I know farmers are frustrated that they can't get skilled English-speaking help because the EU doesn't rate agriculture as a sector with a skills shortage within the EU. I'm inclined to agree with the authorities on this one.

Out of a total population of 500 million, there must be a good 50 million people in countries such as Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania that have experience working on farms and would be only delighted with our basic rate of €9.25 per hour.

Bear in mind that even in Slovakia, which is considered one of the wealthier accession states in the EU, the typical wage for a farm labourer is rarely more than €400 per month.

Farmers counter that there's no point in employing somebody that they cannot communicate with.

People Adapt

But go into any restaurant or deli in any city in the world, and you'll hear a mix of accents and plenty of broken English. People adapt, and language skills develop.

Of course, there is the alternative route, which the dairy partnership that I'm involved in is about to embark on.

Invest in your facilities to make it more attractive to staff, regardless of where they are from.

Work on a brand new 54-unit rotary parlour is due to start in November.

The existing herringbone parlour, even with 40 units and two milking at any time, was beginning to creak, with the milking of 520 cows taking up on three hours.

The logic for the new rotary is pretty clear-cut. A net cost of about €250,000 will knock over an hour off milking time, with one man less in the parlour. By this measure alone it will pay for itself in less than 10 years.

With a capacity to milk 350 cows per hour, it also opens up the possibility of expanding the herd further without compromising the amount of time that cows would have to stand around in the collecting yard.

That's the thing about getting highly qualified labour.

First of all you need a set-up that's big enough to carry the cost of employing the best. But the best will also have their pick of places to work, so conditions and lifestyle become crucial.

So that's the choice - either get comfortable employing people who may have very limited English and, sometimes, limited skills, or invest in building facilities that are attractive to the cream of the crop.

Unfortunately for most farmers, they are stuck somewhere in between these - still adamant that a 'foreigner' won't do, but unwilling or unable to invest to the level that makes the farm work attractive to Irish candidates who currently have a world of opportunity.

Farmers are also hampered by the fact that many have never worked full-time for somebody else. So it's hard for them to get into the mindset of the employee. Unless you've been there, it's very difficult to appreciate just how unappealing it is to continually put in 'a few extra hours', give up weekends, and work in dirty conditions, all for somebody else's gain.

Teagasc is making a big push to promote the job opportunities in Irish farming. But it will ultimately be down to farmers to make the running on this issue.

That's where the realism comes in. No amount of glossy ads or catchy tweets are going to encourage Irish people to take up jobs on farms if they think that there are better paid jobs with better conditions just down the road.

Indo Farming

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