Farmer’s wife knows best, says banker

Will you take this tractor, his debt and 1million onions?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when you marry a farmer you marry the farm.

Their problems are your problem and you’ll find yourself doing jobs you could never imagine.

Which is how I’ve found myself managing the accommodation needs of 100 seasonal farmer workers …  but that let’s not dwell on that delightful challenge today.

I recently attended a lunch for farmers’ wives. It was about networking, information sharing and supporting each other … because really the only people who ‘get’ the challenges of marrying a man on the land are the other wives.

NAB Agribusiness banker Bruce McConnell spoke at the lunch and he told the room that in his experience often the farmer’s wife has a clearer picture of what’s happening in the farming business than their farmer husband.

I can’t say this is the case in my relationship … numbers and I have never been on good terms. But it is fair to say I’m interested and involved in what my husband is doing. It would be foolish not to be. The stakes are high, the risks are great and when it all comes off the rewards can be greater still.

As can the losses … of which we’ve had a few. Sadly.

Mr McConnell told us that too often men were immersed in the paddock and didn’t fully understand what was happening in their business.

“Often I’ll ask what’s your break even cost of production and the wife can answer quicker than the husband. Often the husband is bogged down in the production and has no idea.

“Often what they believe their business is doing and what it’s actually doing are fundamentally different, there’s perception and reality.”

Many of the women who attended the lunch in Boonah said they were involved in the family farming business – both on the farm and in the office. Too often farmers’ wives downplay their involvement in the business, saying when asked, ‘Oh I just do the books.’

What they neglect to say is that the books are for a multi-million dollar business or that ‘doing the books’ also means being the Quality Assurance person, the logistics manager, the stock controller, the purchasing officer, the human resources person and general odd-jobs, get it done lady.

It’s no secret that many farm businesses have had a couple of horror years. The fruit and veg market has been oversupplied and many QLD growers are still trying to recover from the floods of early 2011.

Mr McConnell told the wives that for farming businesses to survive in such tough conditions they had to constantly assess their markets and consider how they were doing things. He said growers should ask these questions of their business: ‘Where are we going, where is this business going?’

And if business is not going well, ‘How are we going to change this around?’ He said banks had previously loaned money based land valuations but now in these difficult times were more focused on the strength of the business, on cash flow and on whether the business could cover its debts.

“Profit means nothing, cash is king,” he said.

He encouraged the audience to consider things like growing niche crops, marketing direct to consumers and working together.

“Horticulture really fights working together, your biggest competitor is your next door neighbour. Consider growing crops that are differentiated in the market, rather than bulk commodity lines.

“We’re still growing broccoli and cauliflower when the cooking shows are saying ‘Use Asian greens.’

“Ask yourselves, ‘Are we keeping up with the next thing?’”

He told the group about a WA grower who now produces potato varieties that have a low GI and a longer shelf life and by doing so have created new markets for their business. He also encouraged growers to get closer to consumers and to understand what their consumers want.