Farmers face many challenges, including climate variability, that require continual adaptation. However, studies of farm adaptation have paid limited attention to the farm workforce, despite changes in farm workforce organisation (i.e. the number, type and forms of employment on farm) being a significant feature of agricultural change globally. To effectively support farmers’ adaptation, it is important to understand farmers’ workforce strategies (i.e. how farm workforce organisation supports the needs and priorities of the farm), how workforce choices are made and the implications for adaptation. This paper progresses a framework for analysing farm adaptability, including the farm workforce. Bringing together theories of livelihoods analysis and strategic human resource management, the farm workforce strategies of 16 case study farms in the Australian cotton production sector are analysed. Cotton production is exposed to major resource constraints, such as irrigation water. We interviewed farmers and collected data on farm business performance, workforce organisation choices, human resource management practices and employees’ experiences of work. We integrated data to characterise farm workforce decision-making and the relationship between workforce strategies and farm adaptability for each farm. A cross-case analysis explored differences between farms. A diversity of workforce strategies was found, involving combinations of workforce options, defined as ‘core’, ‘contract’ and ‘casual’ workers at different levels of skills and experience. Farm workforce strategies were found to influence and be influenced by sources of financial capital, irrigation water availability/holdings, farm remoteness, new farm infrastructure and human resource management practices. The farm workforce was a response option to provide production flexibility, yet high adaptability was associated with some negative consequences for managers and employees. We show for the first time the influence of farm workforce organisation dynamics in adaptation and negative consequences of high farm adaptability. ‘Factoring-in’ the farm workforce in sustainable development studies should therefore be a priority.
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Article selected from proceedings of the 1st International Symposium on Work in Agriculture, which was held in November 2016 at the State University of Maringá (UEM), Brazil.
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