Dairy farm operators in the lower North Island have been praised for flipping the usual employment approach on it's head - rostering staff on when they want to work rather than fitting in around the needs of the farm.

Hopelands Dairies owners Ben and Nicky Allomes won two awards at the inaugural Primary Industries Good Employer Awards at a dinner in the Grand Hall at Parliament, attended by about 130 people.

They were nominated through Dairy NZ and their farm consultant.

The awards – held by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and the Agricultural and Marketing Research Development Trust (AGMARDT) – recognise good employment conditions in the primary sector.

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The Innovative Employment Practices Award recognises employers who are committed to providing good employment conditions in their business or organisation andhave put in place new or innovative programmes, processes, or practices to provide a great work place.

The dairy industry has a bad rap for long hours and tough working conditions. We didn't want our lives to be like that, our people's lives or our industry to be thought of like that

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The Minister's Award recognises employers who are committed to providing good employment conditions in their business or organisation, have put in place an effective programme in one or more of the following aspects of good employment.

"Our journey began back when we got tired of doing farming the old way," said Ben Allomes.

"I thought there's got to be something different to do, there must be a way that farming can meet our needs as a family and as individuals. It must be able to meet the needs of our people as well.

"We started thinking about it. We visited a farmer in Southland using women to milk cows after they dropped their children off at school once a day. I thought 'If he can do that, we can do things differently as well.'

"Our farm now is revolving around people's needs.

"We looked at how many hours it took to run the farm, each day and at different times of the year - which a lot of farmers don't record.

"We worked out what skill level is required, mapped it on a graph - that's our demand and now we've got to find a supply.

"We talked to our people who were working for us. Instead of saying we've got a job that's this many hours and these days, we said 'how many hours do you want to work and which days do you want to work and which jobs do you want to do'.

"They all thought about it, came back to us and we managed to fit most of them in - we've got people who work for two hours a day. We have others who work for 8-10 hours per day, depending on the time of the year. It provides flexibility for them - they're happy.

"We touch base with them regularly to make sure they're still on the same page. We help them to achieve their goals. We have work packages made available in a way that works. Underemployment is high in the community - they can't work full-time jobs - they want so many hours a week to fill a gap."

Tony Egan, Chair, AGMARDT presented the Innovative Employment Practices Award to Nicky and Ben Allomes and Nick Bailey. Photo / Supplied
Tony Egan, Chair, AGMARDT presented the Innovative Employment Practices Award to Nicky and Ben Allomes and Nick Bailey. Photo / Supplied

Farm manager Nick Bailey has been with Hopelands Dairies Ltd for 18 months and has worked with the strategy around it - collaboration.

He is involved in Millennium Farmers, a new wave of thinking about HR and employment practices. It aims to get primary industries to look after people more, to retain and attract people to the industry. Ben's wife Nicky "throws in a few ideas." She is facilitator for the "Good Yards" with Rural Support Trust. "We've gone from having a staff to having a team," she said.

Nick manages the roster. Traditionally it should be a four-person farm, they've got 12 now.

Different people work at different times of the season throughout the year doing different hours. It's the same hours worked in total for 12 people as it is for four.

"We used to have a lot of risk with one key person in charge of a lot of jobs," said Ben. "If they weren't there, there was a big hole to fill. A lot of people now know the system and the routine and they each know each other's jobs - we train them to know that.

"We can shuffle people around much easier and fill gaps much more easily," he said.

Nick runs a 11 plus three roster for those working on full hours. They only have to get up early four days out of 11, it keeps everyone happy, it's sharing the load.

"In a hierarchical structure it is typical for a farm worker to report to a 2IC who reports to a farm manager. We flipped it on it's side," said Ben.

"Even the farm assistant has areas of responsibility that they're in charge of. The manager reports to them!

"Even though they are new on the farm, they're still in charge of a certain part of the job. It works really well for millennials with a leadership desire to step into these positions. We give them that ability to do that from the start.

"They don't need to graft for five years being told what to do - they can be in charge from the start - and they love it.

"As they get more experience their width of responsibility increases, so Nick ends up being in a coaching role rather than telling them of the jobs they must do," he said.

¦ Hopelands Dairies is an equity partnership between the Cassells family with Kay, Tracey and Kirsten Cassells, Ben and Nicky Allomes and Parry Mathews.