Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

Down on the farm: Accounting and the agricultural sector

Charmaine O’Shea’s farming and accounting knowledge is contributing to a more profitable and sustainable agricultural sector

In brief

  • O’Shea’s practical farming know-how has given her the edge in her farm accounting practice
  • Striking the right balance between financial, environmental and social sustainability is key
  • Dairy Woman of the Year 2014, O’Shea promotes the agriculture sector to the corporate world

Charmaine O’Shea FCA considers herself 95 per cent accountant, 5 per cent farmer. Despite this uneven weighting, she has scooped top accolades in both fields, and her practical farming know-how has given her the edge when establishing her own practice specialising in farm accountancy.

O’Shea is New Zealand’s Dairy Woman of the Year 2014, a win that has opened global doors to travel, networking and study opportunities. And the dairy farm she and her brother Shayne own has won awards for its sustainability practices.

Farming is what she has always known, having grown up on a dairy farm in Northland, the northern tip of New Zealand.

With farm accountancy, clients are not only the CEO of their business, they live within the business 24/7, she says.

“They deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly, all within their farm gates.”

Working 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.” While O’Shea believes there’s no ideal personality for farming, farmers need to be able to cope with change. Key challenges in today’s industry include risks around biodiversity, and striking the right balance around financial, environmental and social sustainability.

When she and her brother intensified their farming system there was an increased environmental impact to consider and mitigate. “There has always been an environmental consideration within our farm business and this has simply evolved with our farm system and the new regulations that have been imposed on our industry. You must work with these changes and not against them or you will not be in business long.”

Evolving industry

The agricultural industry is good at sharing information and she and Shayne continually improve their farm by seeking out and learning from industry leaders.

O’Shea believes that, on the whole, New Zealand’s agricultural industry has “evolved with the times” well.

“There will continue to be changes going forward and the agricultural industry is endeavouring to address these in a collaborative, not confrontational, manner.”

In the past there was a fear among farmers about how to deal with the environmental aspect of sustainability, she says. “This 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 need to.”

Keeping it real

O’Shea says it was inevitable she would end up within the agricultural sector, growing up on a dairy farm and having her first “calf club” calf at age four. Her parents still live on the family farm, though now it is used as grazing for Shayne’s and her cattle.

O’Shea knew she wanted to be involved in the agriculture industry, but didn’t want to be a full-time farmer, and studied accountancy while working as office junior in an accountancy 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. She then invested in her brother Shayne’s dairy farm, a partnership which benefits from their complementary skills. He’s the farmer, and she — most of the time — is the accountant.

“I am now only the relief milker when needed, but Shayne says I am still the best relief milker he has. We were both trained by the same person — dad — so no surprise.

“For me 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.

A huge challenge for women in agriculture is a lack of confidence in their own skills and how they can use these skills to add value to our sector.

Farming by design

When it comes to women and farming, O’Shea believes the biggest challenge is that 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. A huge challenge for women in agriculture is a lack of confidence in their own skills and how they can use these skills to add value to our sector.”

She feels many women are undervalued — mostly by themselves — for their contribution within the farming business. She is working to tap into this potential to add real value to the industry.

O’Shea participated in the Agri Women’s Development Trust Escalator Programme in 2012 and was so inspired that she joined its Board in 2013, becoming chair this year.

With her Dairy Woman of the Year 2014 win came a year’s scholarship to the Global Women Breakthrough Leadership Programme.

“I see this as an opportunity to develop corporate networks that I will bring back for the benefit of the agriculture sector, and to take the opportunity to promote the agriculture sector to a corporate audience.”

She rates this win as one of her three career highlights, with recognition for her accountancy skills taking top place.

“To be awarded a Fellowship was the most incredibly humbling moment for me as a chartered accountant.”

In 2013, she and her brother were Supreme Winner of the 2013 Northland Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

“To then be named the 2014 Dairy Women of the Year has meant three very different and three very special and meaningful moments in my career and within an industry which I am passionate about.”

Related: National Primary Sector Conference

Meet Charmaine O'Shea at National Primary Sector Conference in Palmerston North, 23-25 May. Tailor-made for rural practitioners, the conference will equip you with the tools to add more value to primary sector clients. 

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of Acuity magazine.