Date posted: 4/04/2018 7 min read

Farm life: balancing the books and milking cows

Charmaine O’Shea’s farming knowledge has given her the edge in rural accounting, contributing to a more prosperous agriculture sector.

In brief

  • Rural accountants add value by understanding farm clients’ individual challenges
  • Farmers and rural professionals need to be prepared for continuing volatility
  • Women are now key drivers and decision makers in the agri sector

Charmaine O'Shea FCA

Charmaine O'Shea FCA

Award-winning Charmaine O’Shea FCA has two passions: farming and accounting. It turns out that these two interests go hand in hand. She has scooped top accolades in both fields, including winning 2013 Northland Ballance Farm Environment Supreme award (in conjunction with her brother Shayne), Dairy Woman of the Year 2014, a year’s scholarship to the Global Women Breakthrough Leadership Programme and a Fellowship in chartered accounting.

Having grown up on a dairy farm in Northland, New Zealand, O’Shea’s practical farming know-how has given her the edge in establishing her own practice specialising in farm accountancy. She runs a lean team of 19 with two directors, which adds immense value to clients’ businesses.

Agri industry evolution

With farm accounting, clients are not only the CEO of their business, they live within the business 24/7, O’Shea says.

Key challenges in the farming sector means dealing with Mother Nature and price volatility.

“My clients have to be resilient and understand they have influences on their businesses outside their control, so they need to have business resilience to cope with this volatility.”

One thing for certain is that “volatility is here to stay,” says O’Shea, so farmers and rural professionals need to be aware and prepared financially, environmentally and socially.

O’Shea believes that, overall, New Zealand’s agricultural sector is adapting well to compliance and water challenges, however, acknowledges there is still work to be done.

The agricultural industry is good at sharing information and O’Shea continually improves her own farm knowledge by seeking out and learning from industry leaders.

Farmers’ perspectives on how to deal with the environmental aspect of sustainability, she says, has changed “through education within the farm gate and a more collaborative approach within the rural and urban sectors. There is now a sense of farmers making these changes because they want to, not because they have to.”

Improved technology uptake in the agri sector has resulted in improved efficiencies both on the farm and in the farm office. O’Shea says that the engagement of software for reporting means 90% of clients use their own software for day to day financial management. In addition, conversations on the interpretation of data allow her and other rural accountants to look forward and plan for their clients’ future.

Keeping it real

O’Shea’s advice to rural accountants is to go out on the farm and understand the farmer and their challenges firsthand.

“Farmers are highly intelligent people; they’re educated and incredibly skilled at handling multi-million dollar businesses. When the boots come off and you’re sitting at a farmer’s table, they work out pretty quickly if you actually care.”

She also warns against assuming that every farm, region and farmer are the same. There’s a huge diversity of farms that vary according to weather, conditions, topography, soil, pasture quality and other variables. Industry benchmarks can also vary between regions, says O’Shea, so farmers and rural advisors need to be prepared, and use industry tools, like DairyBase, to their advantage. O’Shea was one of foundation members of the working group that developed the DairyBase Benchmarking programme.

“It’s easy to sit in the office and assess, but seeing their challenges face-to-face in their community makes it very real and offers a different lens,” says O’Shea.

O’Shea knew she wanted to be involved in the agriculture industry, but didn’t want to be a full-time farmer, so studied accountancy while working as office junior in an accounting firm. At age 28 she established her own practice, specialising in agriculture. She married a farmer and they developed a successful sharemilking business that grew into a joint venture company milking 1,100 cows.

“At this stage I was an accountant five days a week, a farmer two days.”

A change in circumstances saw the farm business sold, and farm accountancy became her focus. These days O’Shea considers herself 95 per cent accountant, 5 per cent farmer, but recognises,

“As a specialist farm accountant, to have this opportunity to put on gumboots and milk cows is hugely valuable as it ‘keeps it real’ for me and ensures I understand what my clients are dealing with.”

She believes having a passion for the agricultural sector gives her a huge advantage in her practice, as she has a genuine interest in seeing her clients — and the sector as a whole — succeed.

Women's role in agriculture

When it comes to women and farming, O’Shea believes a huge challenge for women in agriculture is a lack of confidence in their own skills and the ways they can use these skills to add value to the sector. Many women are on the farm by default, not design.

“They married a farmer so have had to learn a complete new skill set. However, there are actually a lot of transferable skills they have, but do not realise it.”

O’Shea has worked hard to tap into this potential to add real value to the industry through her involvement in the Agri Women’s Development Trust (AWDT).  She joined the AWDT board in 2012 and has been Chair for the past four years.

The purpose of AWDT, O’Shea explains, is to equip and support women to generate economic, social and environmental progress in NZ primary sector and rural communities. This purpose allows the Trust to live true to its vision: for women as vital partners in world-leading NZ primary industries.

AWDT has been successful in “flipping the script” for women, says O’Shea, to the point where women are now key drivers and decision makers in the sector, by choice as well as default. As AWDT is in a strong position, and gaining strong sector recognition, O’Shea feels comfortable retiring as Chair in May 2018 and leaving it in safe hands, equipped with a refreshed strategy that will see continued success for women in agriculture.

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