Collaborative farming can help address labour shortages

Collaborative farming, involving partnerships outside of families, is common in Ireland, and offers a potential solution to labour shortages, particularly in the dairy industry, according to Tom Curran, Teagasc Farm Business Structures Specialist.

There are just under 1,600 registered farm partnerships at present, with approximately 25% of these between different farm families, and the remainder inter-family, according to Curran.

Collaborative farming, where farmers share the workload and make decisions together, can be highly beneficial, but should not be rushed into, he said.

One of the key benefits of partnership is greater work-life balance, and it can be a solution to tackling the problems with labour availability.

“Farmers in partnerships work as hard as any other farmer, but you have two full-time labour units, and if you structure the labour input correctly, and put a bit of effort into that, you can increase labour efficiency, and achieve the lifestyle benefits. The on-farm agreement is central to this.

“A partnership between two farmers should maximise the skill sets of all partners, and when this is done, you have a more capable farm business,” Curran said.

There is scope for more farmers to work together for mutual benefit, but they need to ask themselves if they are capable of working with somebody else, with give and take, he said.

“They need to be open to making decisions jointly, for the benefit of themselves and the other person. It can be a challenge to change their thinking.”

Tom Curran, Teagasc Farm Business Structures Specialist

Collaborative farming brings with it economic benefits such as the opportunity to increase the scale of the enterprise, said Curran. “This is important, as any partnership must provide a living for the two partners and their families.

“It can reduce the capital investment required because the farmers can make use of the existing facilities on both farms,” he said.

Curran said that most of those who are successfully farming in partnership took ownership of the formation process equally, and many had an existing working relationship.

“It can be difficult for two farmers who are relative strangers to set up in partnership, but it can be done. There has to be a lead-in period,” Curran said. “People need to give it time, and get to know the other person. It needs to be someone you can sit down and talk with, establish business goals with and make decisions with.

“The bottom line is that if the partnership is to be successful, the two people have to get on well. They have to work together and make decisions together, and they have to have the ability to compromise.

“The business structure is there, and has been well thought out. It caters for the three key elements of any collaboration: exit strategy; formation; and operation.  Partnerships are supported by the Department of Agriculture and Revenue through CAP and taxation incentives,” Curran said.

The responsibility for the success of the partnership is very much based on how the farmers involved operate the partnership on a day-to-day basis, and decisions around that.

“Good open communication, along with attributes such as mutual respect, trust and a willingness to put the shoulder to the wheel for the benefit of all involved, are essential to the success also.”

There is a good level of interest in collaborative farming at present, according to Curran. It is, he said, a matter of taking the process step by step, gathering information, and getting the right professional advice on legal matters and taxation, and farm planning with an agricultural advisor.

Working alongside another farmer offers the benefit of having someone to bounce ideas off, Curran said. “That helps in everything from relatively mundane matters to long-term planning.

“What I have seen is that by coming together, farmers have become conscious of having two farms to keep going, and they improve efficiency,” said Curran.

Working together in a partnership also has positive impacts on issues such as: rural isolation; mental health; and farm safety, he said. “When people work together, they tend to be more safety conscious.”