Don’t sweat what you can’t control
With 40 years’ experience in the kiwifruit industry, Sean Carnachan has some clear ideas about what it takes to last the distance.
Sean Carnachan wears multiple hats in the kiwifruit industry. He is a grower based in Katikati, growing all three varieties of kiwifruit – red, green and gold. He is also a contractor, managing orchards for growers, and runs a small post-harvest operation. He holds several directorships in the industry and is very involved in KGI, New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers.
In the 40 years he has been in the industry, Sean has seen plenty of ups and downs. It’s a great industry to be in, he says, but there are always challenges.
“When you think things are going swimmingly well, there’s always something around the corner to challenge you. And generally, the things that challenge us in this industry are not of our own making. They are normally outside influences.”
The big ‘outside influence’ for growers currently is labour shortages, says Sean, who currently employs around 35 staff.
“We’ve got 95 percent current employment in this country which is what I deem to be full employment. And every industry is competing for the small number of workers who are available.
“In the horticulture sector, 25 percent of our labour has been backpackers in the past and now with Covid they are not there. We’ve got RSE staff as well, but we don’t have a full complement of those people in New Zealand at the moment either, so the market is extremely tight.
“Labour shortages mean there’s a lot of work that’s not getting done and it’s costing more and more to get it done. It definitely is a worry for growers.”
Dealing with stress
When it comes to dealing with stress, Sean has developed a clear philosophy for handling the uncertainty which is part and parcel of the industry.
“I always talk about two things: the controllables and the uncontrollables. All the things you can control, you need to have a plan in place to deal with them, but don’t sweat the things you can’t control.
“The classic example is when it rains, and you can’t work and you think ‘I’m going to get further and further behind.’ Yes you are, but it doesn’t matter how much worrying you do, it won’t improve the situation.
“What you can do is discuss the work programme, prioritise what needs to be done and have a good plan in place so when the weather comes right, you have retained everybody, and you can get on with it. That’s critical.”
When it comes to the labour shortage, Sean has identified some ‘controllables’ that he hopes will alleviate the situation. His key strategy is to maximise staff retention.
“You have to look after the staff you have got so you can retain them throughout the year. We employ a lot of staff for 12 months of the year, so they have a permanent job, rather than a seasonal job. We house some of them on our property and we try and be a good employer. Not everybody is focused on the money, there are other things that make people get up in the morning to go to work. You have to identify those needs.”
Look after your wellbeing
Sean is a strong believer in looking after his own wellbeing as well as contributing positively to the wellbeing of others. Taking time out for regular exercise and socialising with others to achieve balance in his life are priorities. If you don’t have that kind of support in place, you have to go looking for it, says Sean.
“It really helps if you can socialise with like-minded people so you don’t have to discuss your issues at work. If you can get exercise along with socialising happening on a regular basis, it gives you that balance. Socialising with good company is so critical. You want to surround yourself with positive people, so you get good vibes off that.”
Sean’s outside interests include “a bit of mountain biking and fishing. They are my two things, but it can be as simple as walking your dog around the orchard or going to the beach.”
“I also have a group of guys I get together with for a beer once a week and most of them don’t grow kiwifruit. It’s something different. We have quite a bit of accommodation here on the farm, people from different backgrounds. We manage to catch up and have a friendly natter once or twice a week over a couple of cold beers we brew ourselves. It’s always at the end of the day and a good unwind. It’s not a drinking culture, it’s a catch-up.”
Typically, there is not much downtime in the kiwifruit industry so finding ways to share the load and take breaks is important, says Sean.
“There are not many months when we are not working seven days a week to manage the orchards. If we waited til there was a lull in our work programme we would have very little time off. This year we managed to run a six-day-a-week business right through the winter which was good because it meant everybody knew they could have a Sunday off.”
Challenges within the industry
Over the years Sean has seen the kiwifruit industry face major threats. When PSA disease attacked kiwifruit vines in 2010 and crippled the industry, Sean got involved personally in supporting growers who were at the end of their tether and ready to walk away from their orchards. Once again it was a case of controlling what you could control.
“It was very serious. What I did was sit down with them and show them there was a pathway through this. ‘I don’t know how it’s going to end up but there is a pathway.’ Just talking to them about their personal situation, their cashflow, and encouraging them to have a conversation with the bank who were supportive of us through that period.
“I did the same thing in 2020 when it looked like we might not be able to get our entire crop harvested because of Covid. Encouraging growers to sit down early with the bank manager and understand their financial position so they had some clarity about what they can and cannot do. Once you have clarity, it improves your mental wellbeing about how you can stay in business.”
Sean is a supporter of Farmstrong’s focus on proactively looking after your own wellbeing, and the wellbeing of your family and community.
“I like what Farmstrong is on about. Now is the time to discuss these ideas and act before things get potentially even tougher. Have the conversations now. It’s well worth it. People have different levels of anxiety and stress in all jobs so it’s good to reach out. It takes an ongoing commitment to look after yourself, it’s not a short fix.”
Farmstrong is a nationwide, rural wellbeing programme that helps farmers and their families cope with the ups and downs of farming. To find out what works for you, check out farmstrong.co.nz