11 min read


Candid Conversations: Addressing Language and Literacy on Farm

Welcome to another session of Candid Conversations, the original webinar series talking all things Agriculture and Farming.

In our newest webinar, we like to think of as a casual chat amongst friends, Sally Murfet joined us to discuss the hot topic of Language and Literacy on Farm. Sally shared her wealth of knowledge and life experience of how this issue is creating barriers affecting farm businesses.

Let’s take a step back, Sally is a People and Culture Specialist at Inspire AG. This means Sally supports Australian farmers and agribusinesses in building safe, productive, and respectful workplace cultures.

Sally grew up on farm and understands every aspect from the field to the boardroom. So, who better to help us learn how we can better prepare our farms and our teams for these challenges? Whilst this conversation might hit hard, stick with us and let’s tackle those questions head on!


Language and Literacy are so important for us all when it comes to health and safety, especially on farm.

With over 25 years working in the industry, Sally uncovered the paddock she wanted to play in 10 years ago. Looking to make a positive impact, Sally took on a role with the state farming organization in Tasmania.

“Through that role I got a feel it was the people space where I could have a positive impact on the industry. I covered regular topics including people, leadership, team development and literacy. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have lived experience with my clients.”

Now that we’ve got the introduction out of the way, we can get started on our most in-demand Candid Conversation yet!


Addressing Language and Literacy on Farm

Hiring backpackers can be hard at times, especially when it comes to ensuring your instructions and guidance is understood. Sally and Kirby step us through how we can have clear communication and ensure everyone’s on the same page.

“I know of a fruit grower who has a large workforce of over 400 people during their peak season. They rely heavily on migrant or transient workforce to help them meet their production needs.

At times they’ve got four or five different cultures that form part of a team. That has become troublesome for them at times.

In terms of making sure people understand the basic policies, procedures, or safety instructions. They’ve established an Induction Program with a buddy system. They look for someone in that community that has good English skills, to be the “team captain” and help with translation if its required.

They’ve gone to the effort of creating a structured video induction process and had that translated into different languages that they need to support the workforce that's there.”

If you were thinking literacy issues don’t apply to your workforce, since you only employ workers who have completed schooling equivalent to year 10 or above, you’d also be wrong.

It’s a fair assumption, but a recent report by the Grattan Institute discovered that a third of Australian children cannot read proficiently. We knew it was high, but not quite that high.

Sally shared an example from one of her clients:

“They had a student on a school-based apprenticeship, that means they did sometime in the classroom and sometime in the paddock.

One of the jobs this client had requested the student to do was to mix a tank of chemical to spray the orchard, the student has done so and sprayed the orchard.

A few weeks later the client found out that a third of their orchard had been wiped out because the student couldn’t read the chemical labelled properly.

They did not want to identify that they couldn’t read or write. They just guessed it and as a result that farmer has lost a third of his production capability and profit.

An expensive lesson that literacy, language and numeracy skills are a significant issue.”

One thing to think about whilst we sit around the kitchen table and say “oh yeah, we can employee from year 10 upwards” - have a think back to when you were at school. Maybe 20 - 30 years ago you could think that, but not now.

So, how do literacy barriers affect daily tasks and responsibilities on farm?

Literacy doesn’t just impact the way you communicate; it also impacts on your culture. Most importantly it impacts on relationships. Particularly if you have that sort of culture that doesn’t value honesty when it comes to putting your hand up to say I’ve made a mistake. A lot of issues on farm is culture. When you improve your culture, these issues tend to disappear significantly because you do have a safe environment.

A safe environment also means an accessible one, where essential information is available in a variety of sources.


If you’re a business that is based on an email chain, if someone has challenges with reading and writing, backing up your communication by touching on it at a toolbox meeting is just one way that you can make sure everyone is involved in conversations. Presenting some of your message visually is also really important tool.

If you’re a leader that has high emotional intelligence, you will naturally pick up on how your workers learn. This is evident in the way that people ask questions. Listen to how they naturally communicate; their language use in terms of audio clues - they might say “what I see from what you just presented” or “what I hear from what you’ve just said”.

Once you start seeing it, you can’t unsee it. It becomes obvious.


How common are literacy issues?

We see it nearly every day. When Sally does presentations, around culture, communication, connection and conduct in Australian farm businesses, she always ends with a story and then backs it up with data:

  • 42% of Australians cannot read or write to a grade 5 or 6 level.

  • 14% (1 in 7) Australians have poor literacy skills

  • 30% (1 in 3 Australians have literacy skills low enough to make them vulnerable to unemployment or social exclusion

It is much more common than you’d anticipate. Sally used her native Tasmania as an example:

“It has one of the highest functional literacy skills in Australia. We’re sitting at over 50% so consider if we were to run a line down the middle of a room, the left side can’t read or write - that’s a lot of people. This is not just an issue of eras gone by.”

It’s not saying someone can’t read or write, it’s just saying what the limitations might be. And how we need to be aware of that. It isn’t just limited to the cognitive ability, you need to include people with neurodiversity, and people with dyslexia.


How can safety training effectively be adapted to individuals with varying levels of literacy?

Ensure your tools and resources are adapted to different learning styles - an item that speaks to the visual people, something that speaks to the audio people and then communication that resonates with the kinaesthetic people. Make your training interactive, it is an important thing.

Make sure that not all your training is disseminated by a policy or procedure or email. Sit down and do some practical exercises; this is how we need to complete this task, and this is the standard we expect.

Give someone the ability to use their hands to learn the process is important - interactive training and hands on activities. Farming is hands-on.

This was just a snippet of the important topics Sally covers in our Candid Conversations: Addressing Language and Literacy on Farm. Obviously, we didn’t include ALL the tips and tricks in this blog, watch the whole conversation below!

Part One


Part Two




Topic: Candid Conversations

Disclaimer: Content on this website may be of relevance to users outside of Australia, but content links and examples are specific to Australia. Please check with your local authority for your country and industry requirements.


Originally published 03 April, 2024.

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