After losing longtime employees to the oil fields, North Dakota farmer Jay Elkin turned to workers from South Africa.
To stay competitive for farm employees, producers are boosting benefits
The experience of Mark and Laurie Diederichs illustrates the metamorphosis agriculture has undergone and how the successful producer of today must be a top-flight employee manager.
Eight years ago, the Malone, Wis., producers were managing 150 cows on their own. Today, after a massive expansion to 3,100 cows with six partners to create Lake Breeze Dairy, Mark is general manager of that dairy plus another 450-cow herd nearby, and Laurie is office manager.
The Diederichses now employ 35 people at Lake Breeze and another seven at Pine Breeze Dairy. They have not only gone from managing cows to people but also to managing people who manage employees. Complicating things further, many of their workers speak a language in which they are not conversant.
"We’ve changed how we managed employees, even within the past year," Mark Diederichs says. "A year ago, we didn’t offer a 401k or health insurance, but now we do. Potential employees said other places offer these benefits. We felt we had to offer them to remain competitive."
Diederichs uses a team approach, grouping several workers to specialize in a specific task. For instance, the dairy has teams for milking; health and reproductive; calving and transition; feeding; and maintenance. The team approach boosts overall work quality, and workers on the teams can learn from others and increase productivity.
Language Barrier. One challenge for Diederichs is the language bar-rier. All but 10 of his employees at Lake Breeze Dairy are Spanish-speaking Hispanics, and he doesn’t speak the language. He communicates instructions to them via his bilingual parlor manager. Diederichs has found he often can show Spanish-speaking workers instructions when needed, rather than tell them. In addition, more and more of his Hispanic employees speak and understand some English.
"My employee management philosophy is to hire the attitude and teach the skill," Diederichs says. "We look for people who are upbeat, with an openness to improve and learn." An employee handbook spells out protocols that are applicable to all new workers. Diederichs also stresses to workers his concept of excellence: "Things done right every day."
The International Solution. For grain farmers in particular, the No. 1 labor issue by far is simply finding workers. To solve that problem, North Dakota wheat producer Jay Elkin has gone global.
With the energy industry taking off in western North Dakota, Elkin lost employees who had been with him for 20 years. They were happy, but they had opportunities that paid far better. In the oil fields, truck drivers make $100,000 per year.
"No way can I compete," says Elkin, who farms near Taylor, N.D. Even the oil fields have 1,000 job openings they haven’t filled, which leaves farmers, grain elevators and other businesses scrambling.
Elkin has turned to a unique solution: international workers located through Employment USA, an Aberdeen, S.D., company with agents worldwide. For the third season, Elkin is using South African workers. He pays an agency fee, the round-trip air fare for employees, housing and transportation to work.
"It’s a good deal for us and a good deal for them," Elkin says. In South Africa, farmworkers are paid $1.10 per hour (U.S. equivalent), while Elkin pays $16 per hour, or $45,000 to $50,000 for an entire season, factoring in all the long hours put in during the summer.
"Most people we’re finding have a background in ag," Elkin says. The South African workers are technologically savvy, but training is quite extensive and intensive. The biggest training challenge is accustoming workers to the massive scale of North Dakota farming and equipment; only small tractors and equipment are used on the grape and olive farms the workers grew up on.
- March 2012