Things to consider before you add staff

Joe Stratton always tells the story of two neighbor-growers.One was his father, the other, his father’s neighbor. Hisfather always hired help; the neighbor always did the workhimself, except at harvesttime. The two men had little in commonas managers, but both were successful.

An all-female crew transplanting pumpkins. Hannah Stratton is on the tractor.

Producers, particularly the old-fashioned ones, can be stereotypically set in their ways, but that can be a strength or a weakness. If you identify it as a strength, then take advantage of it, says Joe Stratton, who manages Stratton’s Wynnorr Farm in Westtown, Pa., and also has a farm consulting business on the side. You can then be seen as persistent, as someone who can be patient and focused until a job is done, but it’s definitely a handicap if you have to work with others.

In growing and farming, there are different management styles if producers choose to manage personnel at all. That topic is often the subject of educational sessions offered by Stratton, who specializes in helping other producers identify their skills and passion for growing and other agriculturally related businesses.

Along with Diana Rehrig, a human resources expert in the mushroom industry in Kennett Square, Pa., a recent session sponsored by the Southeastern PA Agriculture Industry Partnership allowed Stratton to address the necessary tools for assessing human resource and management needs among growers.

Among the issues he covered were how to successfully make the transition from labor into management, and what benefits and costs should be considered when adding employees. Will adding employees really help a farm business grow? What are the business, accounting, tax and legal implications of hiring?

Current or future managers must do a self-assessment: What does it take to be an effective manager?

How do you know if you’re ready to manage people along with everything else? What skills does it take, and how do you develop them? What’s the best way to organize and manage a farm workforce, including<0x202F>unpaid volunteers, seasonal and long-term employees, interns, subcontractors, succession plans for owners/managers? How do you find, hire and retain the best?

A perfect example

Stratton has led a dual career managing a family farm now in its 85th year and working in the farm equipment financing industry. His own farm is a perfect example of growing, managing and responsible delegation.

Farmstand produce has been the family’s mainstay the last 30 years. Ten years ago, the farm added pumpkins, and three years ago Sunny Harvest Farms CSA in conjunction with several Amish families who share growing responsibilities. Last year, Stratton’s Wynnorr Farm added five farmers’ markets to its array. Stratton plants 50 acres of crops, mostly sweet corn, pumpkins, tomatoes and field hay, and also manages a flock of freezer-meat lambs.

He’s always had employees, mostly young, local help, as many as 20-plus in-season employees, though in the off-season, he and his wife do the work.

“For many, it’s the first job, and as fast as they can take on responsibility, they get more,” Stratton says.

Growing successes (not pains)

At Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie, Pa., Tom Murtha and Tricia Borneman partner with Henry and Charlotte Rosenberger, who own the farm and have preserved a large chunk of farmland in the area. “It’s been a runaway success,” Murtha says. “We just keep pinching ourselves.”

The two had worked on other farms all over the country for six years, including three years in Oregon. “This place is the sum total of all those other experiences,” Murtha says. “Now, we, too, deal with a lot of young idealistic people, like we once were, who mostly come at this as an emotional thing as much as for employment. This is a human endeavor, and we can never put the big mission ahead of those who are helping us get there.”

The first year, it was just themselves and Borneman’s father. Now in their fifth year, the farm is eight strong most days. Other than themselves, there are three full-time employees and two part-timers, as well as Borneman’s dad.

Murtha says they always knew they wanted a crew. “Maybe it’s from all my years in sports, but I wanted to be seen as a coach,” he says. “In all the experiences we had, we were always afforded a chance to grow, and so we wanted to create an environment in which our people can explore their own capacities.”

In just five short years, Blooming Glen Farm has its own on-site, 375-family CSA, plus three farmer’s markets in its weekly in-season schedule. The couple has begun handing off two of the markets entirely to their staff, thus engaging them. “They get so pumped, they take pictures of the stand with their cellphones and send them to us, saying, ‘Look how great the display looks,'” Murtha says. “We had that experience in Oregon where the farmer was so willing to hand it off.”

For them, a big part of growing and improving their workforce boiled down to improving the interview process. They knew the decisions they were making were seriously affecting the season’s success.

“In February, we can’t exactly have them come out and pick weeds with us for 10 hours,” Murtha says. “Essentially, we try to scare them out of the job, then if they’re still interested and game, we know we have something. Usually we’re on pins and needles, and our first year, we were like, ‘Please let people respond.'”

This past season they had about 40 applications for four jobs. The application involves 20 questions, then an on-site farm interview. “This year, we really feel like the process worked,” says Murtha.

Structure also helps every workforce, Murtha says. He’s always lining up the next six priorities, all while creating an environment where his workforce wants, and can, ask him, the manager, questions.

The couple rents a large farmhouse on the farm, but have split it into two halves; they live with their daughter, Dakota, on one side, and the on-farm crew lives in the other side. Everyone works 10 or 11-hour days, but the farm is committed to a five-day work week, with weekends off. “It’s more sustainable on the crew,” Murtha says.

Still, there’s the unwritten understanding that, for example, if bad weather is coming and a project must be finished ahead of the storm, the crew sees it through. “But you work to create the environment that your people will want to be involved,” Murtha says. “You create something, then live up to it. We liked to nurture and inspire.”

And sometimes you get lucky. In their second year, Sam Malriat “fell in our lap,” says Murtha. Malriat is now at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “He’s been our bread and butter,” Murtha says.

Together, the crew farms 40 crops on 25 acres and is committed to a 24-week harvest schedule, but is always evaluating “what our farm is capable of producing in a reliable way,” explains Murtha.

An interest base

At Stratton’s session, there was a mix of new and old managers. Some were involved in CSAs, but now wanted to branch out on their own. Some were new and just-new employers, and others were thinking about it. “If you have never had a payroll, and then you do, there are 100 more things to do,” Stratton says. “And there’s a lot more going on now that wasn’t going on five and 10 years ago.”

Some new growers have business and marketing backgrounds; some just have a love of plants.

“We’re seeing a real cross-section,” Stratton says. “Some may have people skills and be well-prepared; others are just pursuing their passion or going into the growing world because they want to be self-sufficient and have no interest in getting any help,<0x202F>but then find out they need lots of help.”

For at least a while, most stand to do it themselves, then figure out they can’t, and then need to know how to get help. Do you involve more family? Do you begin an internship program, a volunteer approach or do you hire true employees? In the end, you must get the produce to the farmers’ market on time.

The basic management concerns will always remain: insurance, taxes, separating working from capital budgets.<0x202F> So will the need for common sense. “The worst mistake you can make is to pay someone under the table,” Stratton says. “Then, if they get hurt and go to the hospital, they’re going to ask for workman’s compensation policy, and without one, you’re in a lot of hot water.”

Much more of the process is stringent today, he says. “Before, maybe the guy would pay out of his own pocket, or he’d use his personal insurance, but today so many pieces of the government and business world talk to and check up on each other that wasn’t the case 20 years ago,” Stratton says. “Unless you’re doing it right, you put yourself at great risk.”

Knowing when to grow?

Evaluate short and long-term goals. Where will I be in a year, five years, a decade from now? If you can’t envision being an employer and think you can be successful by working twice as hard, then you have a different planning process.

Above all, remain patient and willing to sacrifice, Stratton says. It’s critical to any long-term success, and steering through economic downturns. The desire for immediate gratification can be overwhelming, but that’s how many producers get into financial trouble.

Stratton says not to spend profits on lifestyle choices rather than putting extra money into new equipment or barn improvements. Keep operating costs and capital costs in separate columns.

“A surprising number of younger producers are realizing that just because they grew up in the Age of Success, they don’t need to live their life that way,” he says.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.