Always a way through
When M. Bovis hit Geoff Spark’s dairy farm a couple of years back it had a huge impact on his life and livelihood. But it also taught him how to cope in a crisis.
Together with his sharemilkers, Theo and Martin Sneek, and their staff, Geoff runs a 460-hectare dairy operation near Oxford. He’s a third-generation farmer and grew up on the family farm in Rangiora which the family’s still farming after 55 years.
“Farming is just something I love. I love the challenge of it, and I love the way it’s a real family lifestyle. It’s just a great way to be working.”
But two years ago, disaster struck. Geoff’s sharemilkers discovered they had bought some stock infected with M. Bovis. Long story short, as part of the biosecurity response they had to cull 2,300 animals and then rebuild the herd from scratch, worrying about cashflow along the way. (By mid-2020, more than 250 properties had been affected and 160,000 animals culled). That harrowing experience taught Geoff a lot about himself and the value of teamwork.
“That was certainly the biggest challenge we’ve faced in farming, but our mindset from the outset was that as negative as the whole thing was, let’s try and stay as positive as we can. Let’s work as a team to find a solution. So, we didn’t hide from the problem, we embraced it and went along to every meeting and were part of every discussion. One of the proudest things for me as a farmer is that having gone through all that, we are still together with our sharemilkers. We found a way through as a team.”
“We also tried to remove the emotion from our decision-making and just focus on the business. After all, losing any animal is a very tough thing.”
“I would’ve hated to go through that on my own, so sharing the load was a huge help. My sharemilkers and I were able to share all that stress, share those decisions and talk them through as a group. That kept us strong. There was real pressure, but we pulled it back on track as a team.”
“It taught me that there is always a way through tough situations. It might involve a compromise, it might not be perfect, but there’s always a way through.”
Working as a team and valuing people
These days Geoff is back to managing the usual challenges of farming. “You’ve got day-to-day stuff like the weather and also keeping your team motivated and focused on producing quality product day after day and consistently maintaining those standards.”
Geoff says he’s decided the key to running a profitable, sustainable business is focusing on the people who work in it, not just the pasture and the stock.
“We all work well as a team. I work closely with my sharemilkers each day. And they have daily meetings with their staff. We also have regular get-togethers as a whole business to socialise. At the end of a season we’ll celebrate what we’ve achieved as a group.”
How has he created such an effective team? “It’s about valuing people and providing a calm, friendly, approachable work environment,” he says.
“That’s why we make time to chat with staff regularly and just ask them that question – ‘how’s everything going for you?’ It’s about taking that time to catch up with people, whether it’s your team or your neighbours. And it doesn’t take much, does it? A few minutes here or there.”
“Sometimes I think we underestimate just how valuable it is to that person showing that we care and want to have a yarn to see how they’re doing. It is important to take the lead and keep those connections going.”
Geoff believes attitudes towards managing staff are changing in the industry. “I think most people realise nowadays that people are critical to the success of your business, and if you have good people round you, then do your best to look after them. I definitely think there’s been a shift. I’ve certainly learnt that if you give the people in your business a chance to enjoy their work and grow, then they are much more likely to stay with you and then you can both grow together.”
Geoff tries to lead by example. To recharge during his downtime, he likes to get out on his bike a few times a week with mates and keep fit. “During summer we have a local Oxford farmers group so we can get together and go for a ride and have a yarn on a Monday night. That’s something that keeps me going,” he says.
“Also, my family, that’s probably my biggest motivation and influence on my wellbeing, just being involved in their lives and supporting them. I make sure I keep that balance. Yes, the farm’s important and the business is important, but our business’ values are that family is number one. That’s always my priority.”
“That’s why I’m a firm believer in Farmstrong. I love the idea of ‘live well, farm well’ and the notion that if you’ve got your life in balance, then the farm is just naturally going to go well. That makes a lot of sense to me.”
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.