• Richard Woodhead is a Wanaka-based board member of Rural Contractors NZ.

Recently three of our overseas machinery operators, two Irish, one English lad, headed home.

They are all talking of returning to spend another season with us. We normally do have repeats and that’s a blessing for us when getting skilled staff is such an on-going challenge.

One Irish lad has returned five years in a row. I’m aware that not everyone has these experiences so I thought I’d share how we look after our imports in the hope it may assist others.

Firstly, a lot of those who come to New Zealand for seasonal work driving machinery are really young. Some of them are 19 or 20 years old and have never left home before.  This is not to say they can’t do the job. They make some of our young Kiwi operators look amateurish. But you have to look after them and keep an eye out for how they are faring. They can get horribly homesick.An evening meal is provided at our home that we all share including the Kiwis who work for us and live locally. One good meal a day goes a long way to making our overseas lads feel at home. Frankly, if you don’t feed them they’ll end up going to town and eating rubbish. We really treat them like part of the family for the weeks and months they are with us.

They are accommodated in a cottage on our Wanaka property that used to be our own home. They have their own bedrooms. Sorry but the days were young fellas will bunk in two and four at a time for months on end are over.  Most won’t tolerate that. They expect some privacy along with home comforts. Shabby, cold shearers’ huts are not going to cut it.

We don’t have an Internet connection in the cottage but they use their phones or come into the house and Skype home or call the girlfriend. Of course, they use their phones to trade notes on what their experiences are. I’m aware that some contractors and farmers can lose overseas staff during a season. I don’t condone that but we’ve never had anyone jumping ship here.

I think in part at least that comes down to people working here feeling truly appreciated. I guess that extends to the succession plan Lynne and I have in place. A few years ago a young local guy Toby Mathieson started working for us. Now him and his wife Sara are beginning the process of buying us out of the business.

We started Wanaka Agricultural Contracting more than 30 years ago with one tractor doing heavy cultivation; we now have eight and all the associated machinery for direct drilling, sileage, baleage and hay.

My wife and business partner Lynne and I are going back to Ireland in May, where many of our staff come from. Needless to say we catch up with some of them and enjoy a lot of hospitality (and a few Guinness.) That’s very much the Irish way. I think it’s actually the New Zealand way too and it certainly brings its benefits.