Running a modern farm business requires a wide range of skills which can leave some farmers feeling like they are drowning in a sea of paperwork, according to Sarah Searle of Sarah's Solutions in Northland.
Searle, who lives in Te Kopuru, runs courses in literacy and numeracy throughout New Zealand through her tutoring business and has been chosen to be on the Tertiary Education Commission's Workforce Development Council Reference Group of 35 experts which is advising the Government about the future of vocational education and training.
She said the problem for most farmers is the huge workload in compliance with regulations around food production and the environment.
She said the people who traditionally left school to become farmers were not considered book people or computer geeks.
They became farmers because they wanted to work outside and loved working with animals.
"Now they are faced with a really competitive situation and if they want to succeed they have to be a jack of all trades. They have to be good at project management and understanding numbers and people management."
Searle said farmers also need to be experts in chemistry and soil composition to be able to understand fertiliser requirements "or they get walked all over by fertiliser salespeople talking the talk".
"Nobody is good at everything and it's no wonder that struggling with all the requirements of running a farm business can lead to feelings of hopelessness and desperation as well as a high suicide rate,'' she said.
Searle said very good farmers are being stopped from going to higher levels of being a sharemilker or farm manager because they don't understand numbers properly.
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"Even if they try and do further training, often that is independent learning so they feel alone and isolated,'' she said.
She said the rise of environmental requirements has increased compliance tasks.
The majority of farmers are environmentally aware "despite the bad reputation of a few".
"Farmers have to actually understand the environment or they couldn't grow grass in a sustainable way, and they are very good at animal husbandry because animals produce their money. They have to look after the land because that is what feeds their animals. But it has got more and more technical,'' she said.
Searle said learning difficulties such as dyslexia compound the issues.
"Someone with learning difficulties often compensates by developing other skills to a very high level.
"They often have a high intelligence level and a hugely overactive brain which gives them a photographic memory so they don't have to write things down. These people wouldn't need a list in the supermarket, for example, or would make the perfect waiter,'' she said.
A person with learning difficulties will look for extra detail as well as the big picture to help them understand their work requirement.
The downside is the efforts to hide the learning disability also makes them become good liars "which is a bit of a shame" and because they will require the big picture of why a job needs to be done a certain way "they can become argumentative with the boss" if this isn't explained properly.
However, Searle said if an employer understands, the heightened skills make them "definitely someone you would want to hire".
Searle has been working in adult education and wellbeing since 1997. She works alongside industry leaders to improve the literacy and numeracy of the workforce. She has also been involved in pre-employment programmes, Language, Literacy and Numeracy programmes, Adult Community Education programmes, and Industry Training Organisation programmes.
With her accounting degree from Massey University, she is passionate about numeracy and helping people overcome their fears of finances.
Searle said most people were never taught budgeting or finances properly, and she sees many cases where people have signed up for deals that they do not fully understand.
"They will get advice for buying a house yet sign up for an interest-free deal at a big store without looking at the fine print. Many people are over-insured and these days they are expected to figure out the insurance amount themselves. It's all money going out of their bank account each month which they need to monitor more closely.
"People also need the confidence to talk to their banks to alter mortgages to get the best deals possible. Not everyone knows you can negotiate,'' she said.
Armed with the right information it is possible to gain control of finances and with that comes better self-esteem.
Searle said one recent case involved a couple in their 60s who had a 30-year mortgage which was able to be renegotiated so that they now only have a year left to pay it off.
"There was nothing dodgy and they didn't have to pay any more. It was all about the small tweaks that can make a huge difference.''
Searle said good workers often rise into high positions that require skills they might not possess naturally.
"It happens in all professions. The best knife hand at the meat works becomes the supervisor, but they struggle because they don't know how to be a manager. The best teacher becomes the principal but struggles because suddenly they have to know how to be a project manager of building renovations and manage employment issues.
"And the best animal health worker on the farm becomes a contract milker and struggles because they don't know how to do that job. And so it goes on,'' she said.
Searle offers free government-funded courses for groups of eight, which can be from one farm business or a group of neighbours. She is also happy to collaborate with other existing training providers.
"What I find is that whether it's a farm or other workplace, not one person doesn't need help in some way.''
The workforce reference group meets via Zoom meeting each month and has already started to provide feedback to the Government.