Innovative approaches attract workers and build agriculture’s future

Many growers face the challenge of finding good labor on the farm, but the bigger issue facing the industry is finding the next generation of farmers. At Wheatland Vegetable Farms (www.wheatlandvegetablefarms.com) in Purcellville, Va., Susan and Chip Planck have found creative ways to address both challenges through a long-established intern/worker program and a more recent farm rental program.

Over their decades in farming, Susan and Chip Planck (back right) have recruited young workers to experience life at Wheatland Vegetable Farms in Purcellville, Va. A number of those workers have gone on to start their own farms. And, three years ago, the Plancks began renting out acreage, equipment and infrastructure on their farm to those just starting out in agriculture.
Photo courtesy of Wheatland Vegetable Farms.

“We’ve hired young people—typically college-age people, but also older—since the early 1970s. That’s been our system to get seasonal workers,” explains Planck. He calls them workers rather than interns, because they’re not only learning about farming, but are themselves vital to the farm’s operations. “They’re not incidental. We pay them, and if they didn’t come to work on any given day, the work wouldn’t get done,” he adds.

Some of these just want a summer job outside, some of them want to learn more about where their food comes from and some of them are thinking about being farmers and are getting that exposure, says Planck.

During the several decades that the Plancks have worked with young intern-workers, those workers have always lived on the farm and cooked their meals together. “We partitioned rooms off in a barn and there’s a kitchen there, so they really live as a group,” says Planck. This means that living costs are nearly negligible for the workers.

One thing that has evolved over the years is the means by which the Plancks recruit prospective workers. In past decades, they frequently worked with college placement offices. “Now, we get almost all of our references through Web sites like ATTRA [attra.ncat.org] and Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms [www.wwoofusa.org], or by word of mouth,” says Planck.

At one time, Wheatland Farms grew on 20 acres and would recruit about 20 workers each year. Today, they have decreased the size of their own farming efforts and have begun renting out acreage, as well as related barns, equipment and infrastructure. This past year, Wheatland Farms hired four full-time workers. “We do not have a hard time filling those positions. We get a lot of inquiries, and that number seems to always be increasing,” says Planck.

Any worker inquiring about a position at Wheatland Farms is provided with a packet of information describing the farm, job responsibilities, living arrangements, expectations, etc. Planck says he’s learned that providing all that information upfront helps narrow the applicant pool and ensures the best possible fit between farm and worker. “By the time they read our material and decide whether our place is for them, and then actually go through the application process, they’re pretty zeroed-in on what things will be like and we’re pretty assured that they’ll work out,” he explains. The application process also requires the prospective worker talk with a past employee of the farm, further ensuring that the applicant has a clear understanding of the experience.

This comprehensive process serves not only the worker, but also the farm. “We don’t need 100 applications to get 10 good workers,” says Planck. “By the time we get an application, they’re pretty much all great.” Finding a good fit with workers isn’t always so easy in the farming business. “We hear so many stories from other farms about mismatches,” adds Susan. “It happened to us in the beginning, too. We would have people leave and so on.” But over the years, the couple refined their processes and expanded the amount of information they provide potential workers (now up to seven pages) to ensure everyone is on the same page before a worker is hired.

“The best advice we can give to other farms interested in following this model is to describe exactly what you expect: exactly what the work is like, exactly what the conditions will be, exactly what you’ll pay and exactly the kind of person you want,” Susan emphasizes. “You’ll turn away all the people who wouldn’t be right, and the people who are left will be the right ones.”

Once on the farm, the Plancks involve their workers in all aspects of farm management, including not only long days in the field, but also an opportunity to help with the business aspects of the operation. “This gives them an enjoyment as well as an understanding of how it all works,” Planck explains. “We’ve always been big on transparency of our [financial] books, as well as what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and many are eager to learn everything they can. They just devour the information, which is very gratifying to see.”

Not all of the workers want to get into farming as a career, but many have done just that. “We have a running list of people who have worked with us and then gone on to farm commercially themselves,” says Susan.

In 2006, the Plancks decided to start downsizing their own growing operation, and they decided to begin renting out some of their acreage. They put together a detailed description of exactly how the farm rental arrangement works for potential renters. “We have devised a two-part rental formula. For use of land and farming infrastructure, we charge a flat fee per acre; we also charge a percentage of gross sales. We have staggered both charges slightly to encourage farmers to rent more acres per year or to stay for a second or third year or more … All farms here are strictly independent. All produce is grown, stored and sold only by the farm that produced it. Each farm applies to markets on its own, hires its own workers, obtains its own insurance, does its own payroll, taxes, etc.”

The first renter that year was Ali Moussalli, an experienced employee who had worked at Wheatland Vegetable Farms for three years, as well as logging prior time on another farm. “He was ready. He knew enough and he had the experience. He had a little money saved up … [was] able to rent existing farmland and machinery—both of which he knew very well,” Planck explains. “He was also able to take our place at some very good markets, which also worked out very well for him,” adds Susan. (Wheatland Farms has had a long presence in a number of large farmers’ markets in and around nearby Washington, D.C.)

Moussalli met and married Lisa Steinbrueck, who was working that year on the Plancks’ farm. After three years renting at Wheatland Vegetable Farms, the couple was able to save up enough money to purchase their own farm elsewhere in Virginia. “Their experience as independent operators also helped them qualify for a USDA beginning farmer loan,” says Planck.

Two years ago, another couple rented at Wheatland Farms and was also able to recently purchase their own land and farm. In 2010, there will be two separate farmers renting the land and infrastructure (including not only equipment, but barns, fencing, established fields, etc.) at Wheatland Vegetable Farms. Susan says they had no real blueprint to work from when creating the rental program, but in three years the arrangement has proven successful for everyone involved: the landlords, the tenant and the future of agriculture.

While proving to make sense financially for the Plancks, the rental program has also been emotionally satisfying for the couple. “We so much enjoy seeing other people driving around on our tractors, and all the cheerful activity. It feels just like the days when we were farming 20 acres,” says Susan.

Then there’s the satisfaction of seeing a younger generation getting into growing. Planck says the cost of land and infrastructure has always made it costly (especially near populated areas where there are more customers) to begin farming, but today’s increased market opportunities and interest among health and environmentally conscious consumers may mean that now is as good a time as ever to become a fruit/vegetable grower. “The marketing avenues for smaller-scale local production are much more involved than they’ve ever been,” he explains. For example, in addition to farmers’ markets, CSA programs are more popular and there’s interest on the part of institutions such as schools in buying locally grown produce.

“Sustainable agriculture is absolutely a growing field. There’s a market for sustainably grown foods,” says Susan. She also feels that’s the area that’s generating the kind of interest among younger people who will make up the next generation of farmers.

Many of those interested future farmers just need the types of opportunities that Wheatland Vegetable Farms is providing. “I think it really should be the goal of everyone in agriculture to want to see more people enjoying farming,” says Susan. “You always read how the farming population is growing older, and how people are worried about where their food comes from. Getting more people into growing food helps both ways. It’s really neat.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.