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Pāmu: A different type of farming

One of the country's biggest farmers, Pāmu, revamped its on-farm health and safety practices after a series of deaths. It’s now leading the way in an industry that sorely needs improvement. Bernard Hickey reports in the first of a Newsroom series supported by Pāmu.

I’ve been on and off dairy farms my whole life, but never one like this.

I visited Pāmu's Pastoral dairy farm complex on the volcanic plateau between Taupo and Rotorua last spring. It was strangely familiar, yet utterly foreign to my own experience of growing up on a dairy farm not far from these parts in the 1970s and 1980s.

I grew up in Galatea, which is a region on similarly pumicey soil just off the plateau. It’s just over an hour’s drive away from the former forests of Pāmu's Pastoral complex of farms, on what is known as the Wairakei Estate. There was the same big blue sky, the same lucerne and the same herds of mostly Friesian cows.

But that’s where the similarities ended.

First, I had to sign a visitors’ log book, don a high viz vest and watch a presentation about health and safety. My host and former Massey University flatmate, Bruce Hunter, was matter of fact when explaining the health and safety routine. It is now embedded across Pāmu's complex of 21 farms on land that used to be a pine forest.

“The team just gets on board with the systems,” said Hunter, who is now Pāmu’s Senior Dairy Business Manager at Wairakei. Pāmu is the brand name for Landcorp Farming Ltd.

“There’s a lot of recording. A lot of reports of near misses done. Everybody is working towards making sure everybody gets home safe - it's a top priority as a business,” he said, as one of Wairakei’s workers, Nate, got off his motorbike to open a gate for our ute.

He was wearing a high viz jacket, a helmet and had both a personal locator beacon and a walkie talkie in case he got into trouble on his own. 

That’s not how I remember life on our farm at Galatea, or our neighbours’, or even now in the wider industry. I drove tractors with dangerous hay baling equipment at the age of 10. My brothers and I have a variety of scars from various motorbike accidents, mishaps with trailers and all sorts of concussions and scrapes from head butts from cows and calves and falls from farm equipment.

I once blew up a tractor shed while trying to fill a motorbike with petrol. I was 11 and I still don’t quite know how I got off the farm with all my fingers and toes intact, let alone all my original skin.

Dairying is sadly among the poorest performing industries for workplace safety.

A WorkSafe survey of health and safety attitudes and behaviours in 2017 found agriculture performed the worst of the four most dangerous sectors, which meant it was worse than forestry, construction and manufacturing. Just 26 percent of farm workers said safety was their top priority. It found 44 percent worked while over-tired, 27 percent were deliberately taking risks and shortcuts and 41 percent said they worked while sick or injured.

WorkSafe statistics show there have been 143 deaths in farming since 2011, including 39 on quad bikes and 48 since tougher Health and Safety legislation was passed in 2015 to create WorkSafe in the wake of the Pike River disaster.

Agriculture was controversially excluded from the toughest elements of the legislation after farmers feared it would enable a growth of unionism.

Meanwhile, Pāmu was dealing with its own crisis. Chief Executive Steve Carden launched a revamp of the state-owned farming group’s safety programmes in 2015 after three deaths in six months.

“We had to stop and really take a hard look at ourselves around what we were doing on-farm,” said Peter Simone, Pāmu’s General Manager for People Safety and Quality.

"Pāmu has removed all quad bikes from our dairy farms and has significantly reduced the number of quad bikes on our livestock farms. We have replaced the quad bikes with ‘side-by-side’ vehicles which in our opinion are a much safer option for our staff as they are fitted with seat belts and roll bars," he said. "The remaining quad bikes on livestock farms are equipped with Lifeguards and Farm Angels. A Lifeguard is a flexible arc that mounts to the back of the quad bike and provides space in the event of a roll over. A Farm Angel is a satellite-enabled tracking and reporting system which notifies head office of an accident or risky activity."

It rebuilt its system for training, monitoring and reporting on loss time injury rates from the ground up to understand how Pāmu was performing against international benchmarks, given reporting in New Zealand farming is so poor. Pāmu moved from paper reporting systems to an online checkbox system that allowed near-real time reporting from each staff member's mobile phone.

The impact of Pāmu's safety changes were recognised in 2017, when Steve Carden won the 'Health and Safety Leader of the Year' at the NZ Workplace Health and Safety Awards.

Simone said Pāmu engaged Wilson Consulting to conduct a review of its health and safety practices and of its training programmes. Wilson created a health and safety education and training programme for Pāmu managers and workers.

“As a result of the work that we were doing. We realised we had a product that was missing in the agri-sector. We established the Pāmu Academy, which is a joint venture between Wilson Consulting and Pāmu to address our ongoing health and safety leadership requirements and to offer the training to the greater industry," he said. The Academy now trains people from across the agriculture sector in safety leadership.

But it was more than just putting on high viz gear and getting rid of quad bikes.

Pāmu also wanted to understand the reasons why accidents were happening, and to go wider than just work hours. That included looking at more ephemeral issues such as tiredness, poor nutrition and mental health.

“Part of this goes back to one of the simple philosophies, which is 'fit for work'. Take a look at each individual. What is the state that they're coming into work? Are they mentally fit? Are they physically fit? Are they emotionally fit? Are they getting the right nutrition?” said Simone.

“And part of the analysis that we looked at was the time of the day of incidents. So when did an employee start? What did they eat prior to coming on starting at 4.30 in the morning milking. What have they consumed during the day?” he said.

That led Pāmu to start putting on meals and/or healthy snack options for staff in the peak of the dairy season. It’s all part of a culture change that has bedded-in and is now helping to make Pāmu more attractive to staff in an industry beset by high turnover rates.

“It's now okay to say I'm not okay. I don't feel comfortable doing this or I haven't had a break for six hours and I need to go eat something before I take on that task,” Simone explained.

“New people were coming in with a different mindset because the culture on-farm was actually shifting. So, when you start asking people what attracted you to Pāmu, they were saying ‘I like the way you're doing things. I like the training that's being provided. I like the equipment and the safety approach that you're taking to the business’.”

Looking after the health and safety of staff is also a factor in some of Pāmu’s farms moving to once-a-day milking.

Joan Barendsen oversees the Burgess and Renown farms in the 18-dairy farm complex at Pāmu's Pastoral farms and supports the move to once-a-day milking on the 700ha Renown farm three years ago.

The farm has the toughest terrain at Pastoral and the longest distance for cows to travel to the shed, which made the move to once-a-day easier because the cows weren’t ‘wasting’ so much eating time on the trip to the shed. Cows also suffered less lameness and fewer udder infections.

But it also meant staff weren’t so stressed and tired having to milk twice a day and work for longer.

“The guys really enjoy it. If you float the idea of having shifts and milking twice a day, they’re definitely not pleased,” Barendsen said. Engagement has increased, turnover has fallen, and productivity has improved.

Pāmu has also increased its focus on mental health. Simone said Pāmu had just launched a mental health first aid training programme and created an independent hotline for people to call.

“The whole thing now is it's okay not to be okay.”

‘I just love cows and grass’

Another of the big differences between my history with dairying and Pāmu’s model is around ambition and career paths.

The typical model for dairy farmers is that they either inherited a farm, or worked their way up from being a share milker or contract milker into owning their own farm. That either required a young farmer to have hit the family lottery or to work tirelessly for years, 24/7 to build up enough equity (and debt) to be able to afford a farm.

But at some point in the past 15 years that became impossible for many young farmers.

The sheer escalation of prices and increasingly conservative bankers, particularly when it came to lending against cows rather than land, has made farm ownership a pipe dream for almost all young farmers without rich families.

But the dream of farm ownership is a powerful one, particularly when recruiting for farm workers. It’s a dream Pāmu can’t offer because the land is either state-owned and unlikely to be sold or leased from other land owners.

The land managed by Pāmu at Wairakei Estate is leased from Auckland property developers Trevor Farmer, Adrian Burr, Mark Wyborn and Ross Green, who bought the forests and land from Fletcher Challenge Forests in 2003.

Pāmu can’t offer ownership of land or cows, but it can offer better and safer working conditions that are more attractive to a wider range of people, particularly women.

Joan Barendsen is a good example of one of those farm managers who might previously have been expected to go it alone. She grew up on a dairy farm at Norsewood and completed a science degree at Massey.

She went on to work in rural banking for nine years and then several years for DairyNZ and Fonterra as a consultant and manager.

But her first love was farming and she now manages three farms at Pāmu’s Wairakei complex.

“Cows and grass appeal to me. I just understand them. It’s where my passion lies. Any other job that takes me away from cows and grass wouldn’t be for me,” Barendsen told me while looking over a riparian strip to the bank of the Waikato River.

She agreed farm ownership would once have been her dream.

“The prices of dairy farms just kept going up and getting enough equity would have been a steep ask. So instead of having your own farm, why not work for someone without the risk? And still do what you love on the farm, and have a lifestyle as well,” she said.

Pāmu has in particular been looking to attract women to its farms and the business at large, in part by offering promotion opportunities on its 125 farms, and by regularising rosters to more normal hours to give women more choice, including through once a day milking.

Peter Simone said Pāmu has analysed its pay equity performance and invests more in finding and encouraging the right staff. It had halved the pay gap between women and men and it was now significantly better than the national average.

“A huge amount is being put into career development and talent identification, and our size allows us to do this,” he said.

But the basics are also there, including medical insurance for staff from day one, free wet weather gear and, most importantly, good quality on-farm housing for staff and their families.

I grew up in drafty and mouldy farm houses and could aspire to little better if I had stayed on the farm. I was surprised to see the quality of the near-new brick and tile houses for farm workers at Wairakei.

This is the first of five articles looking at innovations and new ways of farming being introduced by publicly owned farmer Pāmu, as part of a content partnership.

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