Posted: June 25, 2013
From Penn State Extension’s Organic Vegetable Intensive 2012.
Employees are often a farms biggest expense. At New Morning Farm labor costs are eight or ten times higher than the next expense category. Labor costs can also be the most flexible. One person may be able to pick a bushel of beans in a half hour versus an hour. Efficient reliable employees make you money, but “I can lose $100 in ten minutes of badly managed labor,” Jim says. If that is not enough to make you think about your labor, Jim described a $50,000 variation in payroll from one year to the next with a good and a not great crew leader.
So how do you minimize the risk and help your employees succeed? Every farm has a different strategy but here are a few from farmers who have been working on this opportunity for a long time. Jim has been farming for forty years, now working with 25 employees to manage 45 acres of produce. Paul and Sandy have grown 8 acres of vegetables, fruit and berries for 25 years with a diverse work force.
Paul says they focus on a “Come on, not go on” strategy. Paul is almost always out in the field with his crew. “You have to be right with them, setting the pace. They watch your hands” and learn how to harvest efficiently. Paul and Sandy have developed their farm partly around this philosophy. “That is why we stay at the size we are, so I am working with them,” Paul says. They also focus on group tasks to make the work less daunting. If the whole crew works together they quickly get through one task and can move on to the next. Another tip is organizing the crew while moving them. They have a small fleet of golf carts on the farm and when they are done with one task the team piles into a go-cart to head over to the next field. While on the go, Paul can explain what the next task will be and any important strategies. To illustrate how important this little time efficiency could be remember if you have five people each paid $10 an hour standing around for ten minutes while they figure out what to do, you just spent $50!
The biggest key to efficient labor Jim says is retention, “retention is my theme song.” One recent set of interns stayed for four years, another employee for nine. With skills like farming that require repetition and the time it takes to learn a farm’s system return employees are much more valuable. To keep these experienced employees on board Jim uses incentives including winter employment, a cash bonus, a 20% raise, a housing improvement and the right to participate in annual planning.
New Morning Farm also divides up labor and duties. Jim finds that employees thrive when you give them responsibility. Not only the crew leader, produce manager and field manager have specific tasks but apprentices are assigned to specific areas as well. Jim has a number of labor management tools including a chart of job descriptions and crop worksheets available on their website, newmorningfarm.net.
For more tips from New Morning Farm and Pleasant Valley Farm see