It was interesting to receive a phone call from a retired economist recently. He rang to say the point made in my last article that farmers were not to blame for the practices resulting in environmental degradation, instead fault lay with the advice they received, in his view “hit the nail on the head”.
We discussed a number of aspects related to this issue, particularly the loss of soil carbon as a result of excessive fertiliser nitrogen applications, and agreed the continued loss of production that resulted could not continue much longer.
What has also been interesting of late is the number of farmers who acknowledge that they know major changes in all aspects of farm management are necessary and will probably happen, but are reluctant to take the first step.
And the reason for this apparent paradox is well understood. There is a classic case, often cited in management courses, that clearly identifies the underlying issues – and it involves toy making.
In a nutshell, a toy making firm by necessity had to make more toys at a lower price in order to remain in business. The necessary studies were completed and the new plan involved splitting the workforce into groups with lunch breaks and smokos being staggered.
This meant the manufacturing could continue uninterrupted with a marked increase in efficiency and output. The workforce continued to be paid on a throughput basis, which meant they received more pay; they also worked fewer hours, with the factory owners generating greater income and lifting profitability.
Everyone seemingly won, however the factory was a major employer in a small town and prior to the changes being implemented had been operating in the same way for many years. Almost immediately there were grumblings of discontent from the workforce and within a few months a meeting with the owners was demanded.
The upshot was the original inefficient and financially less rewarding system was reintroduced even though it was made clear that as a consequence the factory faced an increasingly uncertain future.
The trigger for the changes were that although they worked for a shorter time and took home more pay as well as having a more certain employment future, their breaks fell at different times and they couldn’t share them with the same people they used to.
We don’t like changes to our routines and social disruption is particularly unsettling. Even when there is an obvious and undeniable upside, our foundations are rooted in our daily interaction with friends, family, and those we work with. Changes to this aspect of our life are the most difficult to cope with and therefore the most resistant to change.
What will change dairy farmers’ behaviour? Is it social pressure, in much the same way as smoking in restaurants and school staffrooms became unacceptable? So too will farming practices that destroy soil carbon allowing the steady degradation of our fresh water reserves.
The query is how much more damage has to be inflicted before those changes take place. A number of onlookers are suggesting the tipping point is close, and it’s hoped the catalyst is not regulation but a genuine desire by the farming community to again be highly respected and well-liked members of the wider community. For more information, contact Peter on 0800 843 809.