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Dairy farm employment relationships and the challenge to the "work" of extension

Ruth Nettle1, Dr. Mark Paine2, Dr. John Petheram3

1 PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC. 3010.Phone: 03 83448356 , e-mail: .,
University of Melbourne., 3 University of Melbourne.


A major component of change for dairy farmers has been the increasing need to manage people, rather than just grass, cows and technical aspects of the farm. Conceptually, this change has been at the level of human relationships. As farmers adjust their employment structure to handle larger herd sizes, they become more involved with relationships than ever before.

The research reported in this paper has led to the development of a conceptual model that explains employment relationship processes on dairy farms. The model was refined through participant feedback and the findings of an action research group of employers. Current approaches to intervention were contrasted with the needs identified through the conceptual model. Currently, extension plays virtually no role in one of the most critical issues facing dairying – that of employment relationships. We conclude that for extension to thrive in a changing work environment there is a need to widen the current focus and practice of extension.


Dairy farming has changed markedly over the last few decades. A major part of this change involves increasing demands to manage people (not just biological or technical systems) and to work beyond the farm gate. Conceptually, this change has been at the relationship level. Farmers are more involved with relationships than ever before. The term “relationship” here refers to what connects or binds participants as they go about the work of dairying. This “connection” is more accurately viewed as perpetual motion, rather than a fixed state.

Extension, like farming, has also been marked by changes to the focus and practice of its work domains. This paper will discuss how extension may need to change to meet the needs of dairy farmers as they cope with major employment-related change.

This paper outlines a recent study in the area of employment relationships on dairy farms – and the existing and potential role of intervention agents in this area. Overviews are given of the context of the study and the theories informing research into human relationships. A summary of the research methods is followed by a discussion of the main findings. The findings provide a foundation for analysing the gap between our current understanding of employment relationships, and the role of extension to support such relationships.

Research context

About 90% of Australia’s 14000 dairy farms are owned and operated by families, and family labour accounts for 79% of the total value of labour on dairy farms (ABARE, 1998). One of the most significant changes on dairy farms over the last 25 years is a doubling in the average herd size, which is now at 161 cows per farm (ADC, 1999). An important issue for farmers as they expand their herds is the increasing need to employ people outside the family. Although technology has substituted for labour and family members have provided the majority of labour, thresholds are being reached which mean major change. Farms are facing organisational change, structural change and social change. Farm management now means an increasing emphasise on people, and managing expectations in relationships. Little research has been available to inform and support farming practice in this area.

Theoretical contributions

Research to date on farm labour has focussed on either neo-classical economic views of farm businesses and labour markets with an emphasis on labour productivity and theories of the firm, or the sociological view that elevates power and capital - labour conflicts in industrialised agriculture. These approaches have assisted little in dealing with the labour issues expressed by farmers.

Issues of on-farm employment involve organization and interaction in social relationships. We have focused on a sociological approach to guide our research design and investigate the current situation on dairy farms. In particular, the contributions of organisational theory and human resource management (HRM) have been useful to inform studies of farm employment relationships. Organizational theory has traditionally focused on the study of structure, functioning and performance of organizations. Studies in this area have typically focused on the behaviour of groups and individuals (Silverman, 1970, p.115; Pugh, 1997). An organisational theory perspective views the task of management to be the organization of individuals' behaviour in relation to the physical means and resources required to achieve the organizations’ goals. Alvesson and Willmott (1992, pp. 6-7) are critical of this perspective, and believe that the central issue confronting management resides in the social relations involved in production

The discipline of Human Resource Management (HRM) has addressed the strategic and tactical actions undertaken by organisations to manage their employees:

“Human Resource Management is a distinctive approach to employment management which seeks to achieve competitive advantage through the strategic deployment of a highly committed and capable workforce, using an integrated array of cultural, structural and personnel techniques.” Storey (1995)

In general, key HRM initiatives include: culture change programmes, devolved management, team-working, performance appraisals, mission statement, team briefing, quality circles, harmonised terms and conditions, psychometric tests, delayering of management hierarchies and increased flexibility between jobs. Key HRM practices include: planning, recruitment, selection, assessment, training and development, reward and, employee involvement. These HRM perspectives have been widely accepted within agricultural circles (in terms of practices) - as the way farmers ought to go about "people management". Storey (1995) cautions that this acceptance can too often lead to HRM procedures being seen as an end in themselves. Furthermore, HRM approaches (“initiatives” and “practices”, as listed above) often neglect employee perspectives.

Tipples (1996) agrees with these criticisms and suggests that much "strategic" HRM lacks applicability to small businesses. He prefers a contracting strategy, based on the psychological contract, to meet the expectations of the parties. "Psychological contracts" between employer and employee, emphasise "…the social or psychosocial aspects of work and trust based on the mutual responsibilities and good faith efforts of both employer-employee. " (Storey 1995:151).

The general management literature fails to allow for the home-work-production-business nexus and focuses on the manager rather than worker perspectives. The research emphasis in the area has also been on normative accounts of what should be occurring in farm employment, and there has been little interest in actual practice within the social domain. There is a serious need for a focus on relationships themselves, not just an understanding of employer and employee perspectives (Tipples, 1996, Tipples, 1999, Howard, et al. 1991).

A further consideration is the contribution from extension to employment relationships. Rolings and Wagemakers (1998) emphasise that change towards sustainable agriculture at the farm level is only possible through learning (rather than training or "adoption"). They suggest that transformation in agriculture requires a fundamental change in learning processes. Their claim is that learning can be facilitated, and that this occurs in specific institutional frameworks and policy contexts — the nature of which is critical for the transformation of farming. So, on one hand, HRM theories seem to contribute little to our understanding of how to manage change, whilst on the other hand, current intervention approaches appear to have ignored the employment relationship area on farms. Research that bridges these two substantive areas (HRM for farms and appropriate intervention) would seem to hold promise for improving understanding of farm employment relationships and approaches to intervention.

For these reasons, this study focussed on three levels: employment relationships in farm businesses; dairy industry interventions in employment; and the interface between industry and farm businesses.

Research method

The research opportunities outlined above point to the need for a methodology that would assist in advancing theories of human resource management for employment relationships on farms. The approach should allow for the socially constructed nature of work and employment, the perspective of both employer and employee, and an appreciation of employment relationships as existing in a continuum of change. Interactive research was also seen as necessary, so that the process itself could reveal possible ways of "moving forward" in understanding and advancing employment relationships.

The study was conducted in Gippsland, which accounts for 27% of Australia's dairy production. Three different modes of research were applied: Five case studies of employment relationships over time (involving owners and employees or sharefarmers over a 24 month period); action research with an employer group; and an analysis of current needs for intervention and existing interventions in the industry.

Data gathered from interviews in the longitudinal case studies of employment relationships on farms were analysed by means of N-Vivo software (NUD.IST n-vivo™ version 1.1 Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing Searching and Theorizing), that assists in identifying major themes and relationships between concepts in the data. As the research into the case study relationships progressed, it was evident that farmers were frustrated in the areas of employer-employee relationships, employment management (including recruitment processes), and what they saw as “skill shortages”. This prompted the development of a researcher facilitated, farmer-led group, aimed at action learning through employment issues. This group enabled testing of an intervention strategy for improving employment relationships in real time. The group met regularly over 15 months and their actions and results were documented using filed notes and transcriptions from audio recording. Industry members responsible for contributing to intervention in aspects of labour were interviewed to gain an intervener’s perspective on employment and change.

Analyses were performed on data throughout the life of the fieldwork. An initial conceptual model was developed using preliminary findings to explain employment relationship processes. This model was later refined using subsequent data from the action-learning group and follow-up interviews from the case studies whereby farmer and employees were able to evaluate the model for their own situation. Current approaches to intervention were contrasted with the needs for intervention identified through the conceptual model.


The five case studies allowed exploration of the processes, factors and outcomes involved for actors (employers, employees and interveners) in traversing employment relationships.

1. Identification of the main processes in employment relationships

Four "over-arching" processes were identified across the cases: employment relationship outcomes; core principles guiding employment for employer and employee; mediating processes in employment relationships; and processes of change.

To introduce our understanding of the interactions involved in employment relationships, Table 1 outlines the key concepts that define these “over-arching” processes. These concepts have emerged from the research process. The understanding of farm employment relationships that these concepts promote, and the linkages between the concepts, is then discussed in points 2.0 and 3.0. A discussion of intervention and the extension implications that arise from this study (point 4.0), conclude the results section. The definitions in Table 1 will need to be referred to when reading the elaboration of the research findings.

Table 1. Definitions of key concepts identified in employment relationships

1. Core principles guiding employment

“Guiding rules”

An employer or employee’s guiding rules are their beliefs and attitudes regarding employment relationships, and what can be expected from them. It is the “Guiding rules” of employers and employees that generate the assumptions, expectations, and often the outcomes of the relationship.

"Relationship role positioning"

Determines and defines the expectations of the person and the job from the employer and employee perspective, and directly influences relationship outcomes.

"Employee career orientation"

This is identified by what employees say is important to them about their work in dairying. Key orientations could be: ownership of farm vs. job, partner vs. experience gainer vs. worker.

“Social shaping”

The process whereby employees and sharefarmers assess where there is “best-fit” with job and self/life. It is a seeking, searching, assessing process and is acted out by all employees.

"Employee socialisation"

The experiences in being employed or part of a farm; the degree of good or poor socialisation. Usually influenced by tradition, age, experiences.

“Employee positioning”

The “position” that (generally) youth take in dairying and their job. People often position themselves either for or against farm ownership. Positioning is a way young people establish their identity, e.g., as farmers/workers.

"Social order"

The unique arrangement that can hold a family farm together, and provides the enduring value system for members. High social order can give stability, resilience and endurance in times of change and instability.

2. Mediating processes in the relationship

“Active alignment”

The process in which the actions of employer and employee align expectations of the relationship and the work involved.


The process by which an employer and employee’s expectations are formalised in words and actions.


The (positive) process of ‘mutual choosing’ in beginning an employment relationship, rather than one-sided recruiting.


The (negative) process by which an employee or employer develops the idea of the ideal identity of their employer or employee, respectively.

“Communicative competence”

Concerns the ability of those involved in the employment relationship to talk about and take action toward maintaining the employment relationship (not just the job or contract).

"Support networks"

The mediating, influencing and supporting roles that people outside the employment relationship play in the relationship.

“Bridging age-gaps”

The extent to which the employment relationship strives to “bridge” the generation gap and involve all ages in employment.

3. Time and change processes


The process of change and development that employers undergo. New roles, faculties and skills help to create an emerging identity as an employer.

"Processes of change"

Is change evident – in thinking, in resilience, in active alignment, in “becoming”?

4. Relationship Outcomes


The outcome when the employment relationship is not seen as important to employers or employees. In other words, it is a transactional relationship – work for pay, labour seen as just another factor of production.

“Relationship balance”

An outcome of an employment relationship that involves a balancing of expectations, desires and needs of both employer and employee.

“Relationship resilience”

An outcome resulting from employer and employee actively responding to different shocks as they emerge.


A relationship outcome that occurs when other positive outcomes are attained (balance, resilience): involves employee committed and involved in how the farm is run and improved.

2. Understanding change and employment relationships through the concepts

A number of insights into farm employment relationships and the implications for intervention emerged from the research:

2.1 Employment relationships can be seen as having outcomes — other than turnover

Relationship outcomes (4.) can be seen as being both summative and hierarchical. That is, there is a process operating between different relationship outcomes, like a stage-wise flow from one particular outcome, before another can be attained. This flow moves from simple-reliable, to balance, to resilience to synergy (see Table 1 for definitions). Relationship outcomes can also operate in reverse. For instance, a lack of change in relationships can mean a negative summation, back down the relationship outcomes from stagnation to imbalance, to simple-reliable, to turnover. This does not imply a value judgement about the “best” outcome in employment relationships. Rather, the process of exploring desirable outcomes can occur between the participants in the employment relationship. It also appears that the relationship outcome desired dictates the employment relationship processes needed, which shows the guiding rules necessary for this to be achieved. This appears to be how improvement in employment relationships can be understood - how the existing guiding rules affect the processes in employment relationships and the outcomes being achieved (see Figure 1 for a visual representation of this concept).

2.2 Employment relationship outcomes are purposeful – and not just a result of chance

Actors in employment relationships commonly see relationship outcomes as reliant on chance, or on the good intentions of actors. In contrast, this research suggests that if participants see employment relationships as purposeful, they can be guided towards desirable outcomes. If employment participants give thought to desired outcomes, and there is some understanding of the processes required in achieving these outcomes, then effective action can result. Intervening in relationship outcomes means raising awareness of employment relationships as not just functional in getting the job done – but purposeful for individuals. There are roles for education and extension amongst employees and employers for improving the outcomes from relationships.

2.3 The core principles of employment held by employers and employees are crucial for explaining relationship outcomes and the presence or absence of key mediating processes

The core principles of employment held by employers and employees impact on relationship outcomes either directly, or they are operationalised via processes. The “guiding rules” of employment are among the hardest to change, but they also have the greatest scope for impacting positively on relationship outcomes. Different interventions are needed to assist in preparing employment participants in change.

2.4 Key mediating processes are more than just HRM practices

Employment relationship outcomes result in part from mediating processes, such as contracting, enlisting, alignment, communicative competence, bridging age-gaps and mediating roles. For high level outcomes, the processes appeared summative. For an outcome of synergy, for example, all the mediating processes are required to achieve this mature type of relationship outcome.

2.5 The role of interveners as identified through this research

The results show that third-party support roles need to be closely aligned with the needs of participants, rather than merely representing an employer or employee perspective. Supporting roles contribute to the outcomes and processes of relationships by impacting on the guiding rules of employers, the career orientation and social shaping of employees, and contracting and enlisting processes. Employees and sharefarmers need support (through training and more active learning) in regards to employment processes and the realisation of their career orientations.

3. Linkages between concepts

The concepts outlined in Table 1 may be visualised as a dynamic model whereby the 4 “over-arching” processes (1,2,3 and 4 in Table 1) impact each other as employment relationships work over time (see Figure 1). The core principles that guide employment relationships, effect relationship outcomes directly (1 impacts 4), or they operate through actors engaging in mediating processes (1 effects 4 through 2 and 3) (see Figure 2.). In this way it would appear that the outcome of employment that is desired (4.) appears to dictate the processes needed, which provides an indication for what core principles (1) are necessary. This ‘backwards way’ appears to be how improvement in employment relationships works. The forwards way, that is, core principles affecting processes which determine outcomes, provides a way of explaining how the current outcomes are being achieved on a particular farm. So in terms of the role of the model for improving employment relationships it can be worked forwards or backwards (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. A model of the interrelationships between the four “over-arching” processes in employment relationships

4. Intervening in employment relationships

What type of interventions might assist employers and employees to improve relationship processes? Although the case study research helped develop understanding of the relationships for the participants (employers and employees), it was evident that farmers had difficulty synthesizing theory with practice.

4.1 Group learning processes to move beyond “training”

The role of a group of employers who were involved in an action learning activity is summarised below to develop an understanding of how interventions impact on employment relationships (see Figure 2.).

Figure 2. The place of the action learning intervention in change for improvement in employment relationships

The facilitated group learning and researching activity had an impact on participants guiding rules of employment, assisted participants to understand and practise mediating practices, raised awareness of the need for change in employment relationships and allowed participants to “watch” each other’s relationships and traverse the critical transition points of change.

Farmer comments concerning their involvement in the group and the relevance of the model:

A: “I think the beauty of this thing (the model of employment relationships) is that you've got it on paper - it’s the stuff we talk about - its all in your head and we all have habits of using different words, but in the long run they should mean some of the things that are up there.”

R: "…so the next employee-employer relationship will hopefully be richer and be able to clear things up a bit earlier. Which to me is the real strength of this sort of group –that’s a real richness to us to hear the ideas that jump around – and to come and learn from that…"

B: "I wonder if we look at last year – we weren’t prepared to ask them (employees) ‘why are you leaving’ we said: ‘ just go’. Now we are saying to ourselves … we want you to stay - how can we make you stay – or how can we offer you to stay…Our perceptions as employers today …all of us has gone around that corner – we were confronted with major movement (of employees) and even though we probably didn’t want to talk about it then – we are now seeing we don’t want that to happen this year – so let's try and make it sweet…”

4.2 Further gaps identified in intervention approaches

A similar process to that of the facilitated employer group learning and researching activity needs to be tested for employees (or mixed employer-employee groups). This should include processes for employees to improve their ability to participate in employment relationship processes.

The models of employment relationships were understood at the level of the individual respondents. The group had reservations about the general relevance of their findings for the situations of others.

The group learning process used in this study was reliant on a willingness to participate. This may be a barrier to more widespread use of this process as an intervention. Where groups are not feasible, change may still be achieved through the development of relationship specific models of employment with coaching by third parties to improve processes. The case studies and research group did not adequately address the issues involved with employee-to-employee interactions and interrelationships. Overall, however, the learning group process can be seen as an interesting innovation for assisting change in employment relationships for employers. The combination of research, learning and action can result in ideas for improved management of change and demonstrates possibilities for intervention on a wider scale, rather than just training in HRM practices which does not address the issues concerning the impact of an employers’ or employees’ core principles that guide their action in the employment area.

4.3 Contrasting current dairy industry interventions to the needs highlighted by this research

Employment relationship processes operate at several levels as summarised below (see Figure 3.). Current interventions do not go very far towards meeting the needs of farmers and their employees in terms of employment relationships. First, there is a need to focus interveners on change and its evaluation. Intervention should include facilitated learning processes, rather than just training mechanisms. Further, extension organizations need to broaden their base of extension training and operation. For consultants there is a need to work with individuals to understand their employment relationships and not just work within contracting processes. There is scope for different organizations to work together to improve this situation.

Figure 3. Current intervention approaches and how they relate to the concepts identified so far through the research


This research suggests there are discrepancies between the intervention needs of employment relationships, and the current activities of intervening organizations. The main deficiencies are in the existing focus on training rather than learning and change, the limited abilities of interveners to operate at the level of the relationship, and the limited collaboration between interveners in achieving change.

This research has improved understanding of employment relationships on dairy farms. It contributes to the field of human resource management and psychological contract research and offers participants (and interveners) in employment relationships an insight into possibilities for improvement. It exposed inadequacies in the current interventions in employment in the dairy industry. For extension to thrive in a changing work environment, its agents (including policy) will need to recognize and understand employment relationships and modify (or widen) their agenda and practice to incorporate appropriate interventions in this field.


The authors would like to acknowledge the funding provided for this research by the Dairy Research and Development Corporation through their research scholarship program.


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