Finding and Keeping Good Employees

As a new farmer, managing employees can be a huge challenge.
Finding and Keeping Good Employees - Articles

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Here are a few tips to help you find and keep employees, so that every year they help you grow your business.

Recruitment

'Word of mouth' is often the number one way to find good employees. That means your farm needs to have a good reputation as someplace nice to work. Happy workers will tell their friends and family and bring them to the farm. Good crew leaders will be networked in their communities so that they can also bring people to the farm.

Housing can be helpful for recruitment whether you are working with apprentices or workers who may not have transportation. If you can develop housing on-site or identify local opportunities, this may help you be more competitive.

Utilize websites where you can advertise your farm openings. For example, ATTRA has the largest national apprentice listing database. Good Food Jobs is becoming more and more popular. Other sites to post your job openings include Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) and WWOOF, among others. Many other regional farming organizations have classified pages as well, and don't forget about your local universities and colleges.

Setting Expectations

Do you have an employee handbook that lists compensation, hours, sick leave, benefits and disciplinary policies? A good employee manual helps you do a good job of setting expectations from the beginning and checking back in occasionally to make sure expectations are clear. See University of Vermont's publication, "Writing a Farm Employee Handbook" for a list of essential pieces to include. There are many farm employee handbooks you can use to start your own. Take a look at this example, by Farm Commons.

Your handbook will continually evolve. "Every year we have something come up and realize we need to add to the manual", says Tom Murtha at Blooming Glen farm. At the Seed Farm Incubator, in Emmaus PA, they also include standards of efficiency. For example, they describe how many CSA boxes they expect to pack in an hour with four people. These details help set expectations for productivity and provide a framework for discussion if expectations are not being met.

Interviews

You will want to develop an interview process that fits your farm. Dave Hambleton at Sisters Hill Farm, starts the process with a well-developed set of application questions. After looking at applications he phone interviews his best candidates with a set of prescribed questions in order to quickly winnow down the applicants and decide who to interview in person.

Many farmers I work with use working interviews in order to get a good sense of who will work quickly, effectively and fit in with their farm dynamic. For example, one farm interviews while they pack CSA baskets so that they can watch to see if applicants observe and think while they work. They want the new person to put the heavy produce on the bottom of the box and light greens on top without having to be told! The Seed Farm interviews while they weed to see how quickly their applicants work and if they can work and talk. Other farms give tours while they interview to relax potential employees and observe them as they go. "I want to see if they can keep up with me," one farmer told me. "I am sixty and if these young would be farmers can't even walk as fast as I do across the farm while we talk, it is not going to work."

Make it Fun

Happy farmers are productive farmers. Farmers we talked to said they try to keep it fun. Farming is hard work, and so they try to incorporate a few fun things to show their appreciation to their employees. A bonfire in the evening, ice cream after work, cooking for their workers when they work late, a trip or two to visit other farms in the slow season are all ways farmers have said they try to keep their workers engaged and happy.

"Have good equipment," Twin Springs Farm's Michael King told us. Nothing is more frustrating to a crew than having to deal with cruddy or broken equipment and not feeling productive. Investments in the right equipment can be investments in people too.

Lead by example. "Don't be afraid to get out there and do the hard work with them," Jesse King from Twin Springs told us. Whether it is picking brussels sprouts in the cold or working in the mud when there's a push, your crew will appreciate it when you pitch in. Paul Arnold at Pleasant Valley Farm says that by working with his crew every day he sets the pace and keeps them motivated. Other farms have good crew leaders who set the example and keep it fun.

Create a Sense of Ownership

Job titles, profit shares, bonuses, and team meetings can all help employees feel like they are part of the farm team. For example, Jim Crawford at New Morning Farm has a well delineated ladder of responsibility so that employees can see that if they return to the farm the next year they will have increased levels of responsibility as well as compensation. This way, workers are motivated to come back and return employees are much more efficient.

Additional Resources

Tianna DuPont, former Extension Educator

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