COLUMNS


Finding and Keeping Good Employees

By Tamara Scully


Farmers often complain that good workers are hard to find. Local students aren't interested, preferring to make money in occupations that are less physically demanding. Those who think they're interested in farming and want to give it a try aren't accustomed to spending long hours outdoors in nature and don't last long on the job. Many farmers are concerned that a lack of qualified employees, particularly at peak times for transplant and harvest, is going to put them out of business, or at least force them to scale down their operations.

Finding employees familiar with farm work may be more difficult these days. However, training employees to work on the farm, and implementing policies and procedures that take advantage of their desire to work on the farm while taking other demands on their time into consideration, may be one key to developing an efficient, effective and reliable labor force. It may also mean implementing a few changes in management practices to better reflect the realities of today's workforce.

"There are a lot of young people interested in farming right now," said Richard Wiswall, owner of Cate Farm in Plainfield, Vt., and a farm consultant and speaker who offers workshops on farm business management. Wiswall and his wife find themselves in the enviable position of not having enough jobs to go around for all potential employees. The couple has farmed for 33 years and is deluged with applications for work each season.

Hiring and training

The reality is that most people today don't have farm experience. While this may start to change with the renewed interest in small-scale farming, most employees are going to need time to learn the ropes. The best way to do this is one-on-one.

Make sure they are a good fit early on; offer them instruction and observe how they perform by working alongside them, even for a few hours. This will serve to develop mutual respect, while allowing you to get to know the employee better.

"Every farmer thinks the worst part of the job is finding people," Wiswall said. His recommendation: Before hiring an employee, make them fill out an application, check their references, and make the first two weeks of any job offer a probationary period.

Having a defined - preferably written - policy on issues such as which tools are available for use, how to properly perform various duties, and how to resolve any conflicts that arise, goes a long way toward promoting job satisfaction. Job descriptions can provide employees with a tangible outline of your expectations. Regular staff meetings will allow you to provide instruction and guidance, build morale, and allow employees a venue for giving suggestions, airing concerns and developing a positive attitude as they contribute to the farm's success.

"It's work to manage employees, and you have to spend time doing it," Wiswall said. "In every job you've ever had, you've always learned something. As an employer, you're the person imparting knowledge. Your employees like learning."

Flexibility

Farmers often expect their employees to work as long and as hard as they do, but this isn't realistic. Today's potential workforce includes retirees, mothers with children in school, students who have never done farm work and second-income employees.

"There are still people out there who want to work hard," Wiswall said. However, they might not be able to work the same hours you do.

Offering flexible schedules that allow parents to get children off to school, or permitting workers to work half days before reporting to their steady jobs, provides a much wider pool of potential employees. Allowing them to work only a few days a week opens up a whole new group of potential employees. Farming doesn't have to be a 24/7 proposition for your workers.

Another key is to mix up tasks. If weeding is on the agenda, rotate employees off the task for an hour or so and have them run the tractor. Most people are not going to be happy doing the same task from dawn to dusk. There's a lot to be done on the farm, and allowing people to switch off from one task to another, particularly when their primary task can be repetitive and boring, builds morale.

To increase employee retention, Wiswall said that "mixing it up and doing a few fun things in there" is important.

Compensation

Many farmers aren't accustomed to paying much more than minimum wage for hard labor. Paying more than other farms is one way to attract the top employees, and having a reliable workforce year after year means less time training, less stress, and more productivity from your crew.

"If you pay people better, you can expect more from them. The pay matters. It's a sign of mutual respect when we can pay people well," Wiswall said.

There are other forms of compensation besides wages. Cate Farm offers employees a raise of $1 per hour every year, and a retirement plan after their third year of steady work. You can offer employees food grown on the farm as an added benefit. In some situations, housing or transportation to and from the farm may be the key to finding and keeping good workers. Providing a meal or allowing workers a small garden plot to farm on their own time are things they might consider as benefits.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (http://www.attra.ncat.org) offers some suggestions for adding nonwage benefits in its publication, "Positive Practices in Farm Labor Management." A list of low, medium and high-cost ways to offer fringe benefits to farm workers includes: flexible schedules, educational opportunities, safe and healthy work environments, the ability to participate in farm decision-making, retirement plans and profit sharing.

Professional labor

Wiswall has never utilized programs such as the H-2A program. His staff is comprised of local people interested in growing food and younger folks who want to get a start in farming.

"H-2A workers are professionals. They are professional farmers. They are there to work," he said.

There are many resources available for farmers interested in hiring guest workers or migrant laborers. Issues such as worker housing and transportation, access to medical care, social services, schooling and healthy food, as well as the legal requirements and program regulations, need to be addressed.

Your farm can't succeed if your employees aren't motivated, satisfied and dedicated to the farm's success. It's up to you to make your farm a desirable place of employment. Finding and keeping good employees means recognizing their contributions. Whether they're local residents, new immigrants or guest workers, your employees require an investment of your time, but it's an investment that will pay off in the long run, with dedicated workers returning season after season.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.