A fresh persepctive

Invercargill-based shearing contractor Marty Smith has been in the shearing business for 35 years. He says what’s probably changed most during that time are the people.

Marty Smith’s love for the shearing industry remains undiminished. “I love its work ethic, its camaraderie and just seeing everyone heading out to work in the vans each morning. At one point we had 16 crews and half a dozen vans would head out every morning. What a great sight.”

But as much as Marty values hard work, one morning he had a moment that completely changed how he ran his business. “One of my gangers came up to me and said, ‘Hey Marty these guys are looking wrecked.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? They’re all going to work, aren’t they?’ But then I stood back and looked at their demeanor and body language. I could see he was right.”

“There and then I decided, ‘Right, something has to change. From now on we won’t do 7 days a week. We’ll knock Sundays on the head. And anyone who wants to do just half a day Saturday can go and do something else like play sport.’ And I employed another crew to take up the slack.”

It worked. “Suddenly people were happy again, they could treat it like a normal job. When I was shearing I couldn’t get enough of it, I just thought ‘gimme the work, I’ll have a day off when it rains.’ We’d go five or six weeks without a day off. That was my mindset. But I had to learn that that’s not everybody’s mindset.”

Other changes followed. Marty started exploring how he could help his crews manage other pressures. He sourced financial advice about budgeting and KiwiSaver so they didn’t fritter away their hard-earned cash. He also helped them manage other life challenges.

“We’ve got a yard where we all meet in the morning. I started realising that when people turned up not in good shape to work, there was always an underlying factor. It wasn’t about the job or me. Something else was happening in their life. There was always an underlying reason why they were jumping up and down or blowing up about something small like a dog not leaping in the van. It was about the ‘top two inches’ – stress.”

“I came to realise that just like top athletes need the right mindset, so do shearers. Those top two inches need to be right. People are always going to bring the pressures of day-to-day living into their job – relationships, insecurities, losing a parent – and when people are young they don’t have the life experience to cope, so you need to be prepared to listen and help.”

That wasn’t lost on the people who worked for him. “Over the last five years I’ve had a lot of guys come up to me and say, ‘Marty, what the hell’s going on with you? You’ve gone all soft!’ I just told them, ‘I’m taking a fresh perspective.’ he laughs.

“So, taking the pressure off people became my thing. If they wanted a day off, let them have a day off. People my age have their way of doing things, but my kids do things differently now. So even though they know about the importance of hard work and respect, they also know when it’s time to reach out and talk, and that’s a good thing. Times change. Talking is the biggest part of preventing pressure from just building and building til it blows.”

Checking in on the team

These days Marty looks after up to 30 shearers during Main Shear. Once a week he goes round the crews and makes sure everything is right, including the people.  “If someone’s not on top of their game, it’ll be because something’s not right in their life. These days, I speak up and ask, ‘Everything all right mate?’ Telling people to just harden up like the old days doesn’t work. That only sends someone further into the hole.”

“There’s a lot more to shearing than how someone uses a hand piece. It’s also about how people look after themselves, physically and mentally. How they eat, sleep, stretch beforehand and recover after a day on the board. If you do all these things properly you wake up a totally different person to come to work. When people don’t do these things they often look to alcohol or drugs to take the pain away, but that only makes the job harder.”

Marty also realises the importance of leading by example. Despite being in the yard each morning at quarter to five, he still finds time for whanau and his other great love, rugby.

“I live on the Oreti river at home, I’ve got 5 acres here by my awa. It’s only seven minutes out of the city but it’s like living in the country. I’ve been married 40 years this year and have 5 kids. When you’re busy the ones who often miss out are those dearest to you. So after visiting sheds each day, I still make sure I get home for lunch and catch up with my wife.”

He coaches a local premier rugby team too. “When you’re at rugby practice, for that hour or so life’s trials and tribulations are forgotten about. You’re there to chuck a footy around and have a few laughs with mates. On Thursday nights we have shared kai afterwards. To me that’s about mental well-being as much as it is about rugby.”

The NZ Shearing Contractors’ Association announced at its recent conference in New Plymouth that it will be working with Farmstrong to improve the wellbeing of rural communities. It also launched a new industry-driven training initiative -WOMOLife – to upskill 250 shearers and wool handlers. The training will cover areas such as nutrition, body conditioning and mental skills.

“People coming into this industry are often vulnerable,” notes Marty. “Sometimes they’ve had a challenging time during their education or their self-esteem might not be where it should be and they’ll be scared of trying something new. Everything will feel a bit whakama (embarrassing) to them. As contractors, we need to take that on board so people feel supported.”

“Every contractor was a shearer once so we’re all aware of these issues. That’s why I think Farmstrong’s awesome. It gets us talking about these things.”

“My advice to young shearers is that if you’re feeling under pressure, talk about it. Talk to your ganger, talk to your boss. We’re ready to talk about anything happening in your life, and in confidence. We’ve got the sheep, we’ve got the shed and we want the best for our people.”

 Farmstrong is an award-winning rural wellbeing programme that helps farmers and farming families live well to farm well. To find out what works for you and ‘lock it in’, check out our farmer-to-farmer videos, stories and tips on  www.farmstrong.co.nz.

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