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Finding and Keeping Good Employees- It Can Be Done!

by Betty Berning
Extension Educator

One of the top issues I hear about from farmers is labor management.  Most people aren’t farmers because they wanted to manage employees.  Most farmers want to FARM.  As farms grow, though, more help (and management!) is required.  Enter employees.  For an operation to be successful as it grows, owners must accept that they will need to spend more time on management activities, like human resources. 

I hear about human resource struggles- even from farmers that have embraced their role as “farm manager”.  It is hard to find good employees and it is hard to retain them.  The agricultural industry pays less than other comparable industries.  Minnesota mean hourly wage data from May 2015 indicates farmworkers on farms with animals were paid $12.58/hour.  Compare that to a construction laborers’ mean hourly wage of $17.57/hour during that same time.  That’s a difference of almost $5/hour.  In addition, farm work is physically demanding and can be dirty.  Not everyone is cut out to work on a farm!  These factors can make it difficult to find good employees.

It sounds like a lot of doom and gloom, right?  It doesn’t have to be.  With the right tools and approach to employee management, it is possible to both find and keep good employees.  I will offer the disclaimer that there is no silver bullet to solve all problems.  There are some things, though, that a farm can implement that will help improve its chances of recruiting and retaining the right people for the job. 

Let’s start with your image.  What is your public image as a farm?  What do people think about when your farm’s name comes up in conversation?  For example, maybe you lease animals to the local 4-H Club.  People might think of you as service-oriented or good advocates for agriculture.  What do your employees say about working for you?  Your employees can be great advocates for your farm’s image, if they are satisfied and feel valued!  (I’ll provide some tips later in this article on how to value employees, so they feel valued.)  The important thing is that when people hear about or think of your farm, they have a positive image.

If your farm doesn’t have an image or it’s negative, think about what you can do.  Start by being a good neighbor!  This could mean communicating with your neighbors about manure spreading or avoiding fieldwork near neighbors’ homes late in the evening.  I’d also encourage you to think about your farm’s positive attributes- every farm has a few!  Your next step is to determine how to share this positive image.  Social media can be a good way to do this. Traditional activities, like volunteering at church, making school visits, or serving on a community board, are also great ways to build your farm’s image.  Your image lets potential employees know what it might be like to work for you.  Building a positive image will attract people to your farm.

The next thing to think about is recruitment.  How do you recruit?   Do you simply place an ad that says, “Looking for a tractor driver,” in the local paper, or do you write a compelling ad that provides a little bit of information about the job and your farm?  How do you share this message- only in the paper?  Consider new places and ways to recruit, like job fairs, internships through local colleges or FFA programs, referrals from other employees, or handing out your ad to agribusiness professionals.  Be sure to communicate responsibilities and competencies needed for the job, along with a little bit about your farm’s values.

Finally, you have to value your employees.  Treat them like you would want to be treated.  How often do you show them that they are valued?  Simple things often tell people how much we value them.  A “thank you” or “good job” goes a long way!  Some farms have a birthday board or bring in treats to celebrate employees’ birthdays.  Offering a hot meal once a day during busy times like planting or harvest can also be a great way to let your employees know they are appreciated.  Hold regular meetings with your employees to talk about the farm and listen to their feedback.  Listen well.  Try to understand any concerns your employees may have and determine ways to address them.

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