Spotting a successful farmer

Last century a sheep farmer could be spotted as soon as he pulled into town, but Paul Burt says identification isn’t so easy anymore.

In Home Block5 Minutes

BEING A GLASS-HALF-FULL personality, I’ve never felt the need to quantify what success means. Simply enjoying what I do each day is enough. Is the measure even worth discussion, as it means vastly different things to different people?

What does a successful sheep farmer look like? A friend’s father had a menswear shop in Central Hawkes Bay in the 1960s and successful sheep farmers were his bread and butter. They had a look, a style to accompany the Jag or Chev they drove. Could you pick a successful sheep farmer today, being completely open to the fact that he, her, they, may be a she? Whoever, they probably won’t be in a worsted suit topped with a fedora.

The trappings of success obviously change, but are the precursors to reaching the top of your game any different? Is it more about personality or acquired skill, knowing that the ability to work smart and hard is a given?

At a pinch we could all jog a kilometre, but what produces the farming equivalent of a marathon winner and how do you evaluate them? Is it fair to judge on financial performance alone? The average cost of money over my 35-plus mortgage paying years is about 9%. The average return on capital has been less than half this figure, so that’s a fail for starters.

Capital gain on land resets the balance, but this windfall is no reflection of expertise. With a very average score for financial acumen, what else pulls or pushes a sheep farmer to the top. Knowledge? Information is more available than ever before but, as always, success lies in how it is applied.

Intelligence? Pure intelligence is a handicap – I don’t know this from experience, only observation – and unless tempered with a pragmatic approach to problem solving, intelligence is no great advantage.

Appetite for risk? I don’t know any business aside from farming so influenced by factors beyond the operator’s control. Is this best countered with scale and turnover or is conservative risk aversion a better strategy? The answer to this conundrum could fill a book and largely depends on the personality of the main driver of the business. However, opportunists with vision also need their share of luck.

No question – the importance of the team. It’s hard to be successful all by yourself so appreciate and make use of clever people around you. Our ram breeder knows more than we do about sheep performance for our particular niche and that is why we chose him. Not, as Louise suggests, because it’s a three-hour drive that avoids passing anywhere decent for lunch. I maintain there is nothing wrong with garage pies.

Resilience and a sense of self-worth. Whether innovators or masters of refining proven practice, award winners have the confidence to recover and from setbacks. They don’t waste resources and commonly crank more output from each unit of input.

Successful people share passion and partners, but not in the sense that some of you with a lively past might imagine. This is about being driven and having a soul mate. Farming life becomes increasingly difficult without family balance and support.

Occasionally success can become a heady mixture that overrides consideration for others. Keep your feet on the ground and practice generosity of spirit. It is a powerful attribute and there is always more to be gained from bringing people along for the ride than alienating them.

For all their talent, hill country sheep farmers desperately need a new recipe to keep the humble sheep in its well-deserved place in our green and productive landscape. No other animal is such a natural fit. We know this, but disappointingly, we are better at on-farm excellence than in-market success. The voice that narrates our remarkable story has not been loud enough.