Competitive salary and benefits are just the start to building your farm team
At Larson Farms Partnership in Maple Park, Ill., employee management is top of mind. The proof of their management success is longevity—one employee has been working for the farm for 33 years and now his son is part of the team.
"Communication is the biggest challenge," says Mike Martz, a partner at Larson Farms. Four family members work with the farm’s four full-time employees daily and its part-time help in the spring and fall. "We can’t have four individuals telling them all what to do," Martz says. "Everyone has something they are in charge of."
Larson Farms offers competitive salary and benefits but does not pay health insurance. "There is a huge variance in what employees want, so we give them extra salary and let them choose their own," Martz says.
The following five tips are helpful guidelines for managing employees.
1. Find the right employees. The first step to successful employee management is finding the right employees. One place to look is the Internet, says William Edwards, an economist at Iowa State University. He suggests www.hansenagriplacement.com and www.agri-placement.com.
Other places, he says, are classified ads in farm magazines and postings at the local community college, high school and even churches. The tried-and-true method of word of mouth is possibly the best source.
When visiting with a potential candidate, Edwards says, it’s important to explain the job and its responsibilities in detail. For operations with more than 10 employees, it’s a good idea to have an employee handbook that addresses work hours and other expectations.
Larson Farms’ Mike Martz recalls a problem with a worker he had to let go. The employee would show up for work at 8:30, when the farm standard was 7. "If I had interviewed him properly, that wouldn’t have happened," he says.
Too often, employers look solely at the experience of prospective workers when they should be looking at potential and ability, says Roger Williams, a farm mediator and emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin. "Key traits for farm employees are initiative and reliability," he adds. "Employees can be trained in the required skills."
2. Be specific. Once you’ve hired a person for the job, Williams says, be sure to assign that person an entire job to complete, rather than just individual tasks, so he can develop pride in what he does. Meet regularly with the employee to share expectations on how to get the job done. "This only has to take a few minutes," Williams adds.
It’s also imperative, Williams advises, for farmers to develop the art of listening to their workers. "Actively summarize what employees say so they know they have been heard." Farmers should also share their thoughts with their employees: "Don’t expect your workers to be mind readers," he says.
Overall, the No. 1 problem Williams has seen throughout the years is communication. "Rather than say, ‘I need this done now,’ a better way is to say, ‘This is what we need to do today.’ Treat people as partners," he suggests.
Dean Heffta, director of development for Water Street Solutions, notes that farms generally start as father–son operations, but as the operations grow in size, they might need five, six or up to 20 employees.
"Managing employees is not a standard skill for producers," he says. His firm offers risk management and financial consulting but also works with producers on employee management practices.
Heffta notes that farmers often get frustrated with new employees because they need direction; they need to be taught. He thinks it better to have one family member whose responsibility includes employee management, perhaps because he or she has more people skills. "If everyone is responsible for everything, nobody is responsible for anything," Heffta states.
In Heffta’s experience, there are two types of key communication beyond the day-to-day. One is a weekly team meeting that goes over what’s important in the days ahead and who will tackle which projects. The other is the employee review, which should be conducted quar-terly. "A year is way too long," he says. The review should include a discussion about setting goals. "A piece of paper won’t replace a personal conversation," Heffta says.
Beyond the more formal meetings with workers, he says, frequent and informal feedback is also important. He adds, though, that communication involves more than a farmer giving feedback to workers.
3. Control your emotions. Employers should not approach workers when they’re angry, Williams says. "Count to 10, 15, maybe even 1,000, reflect on it, and then go to the employee and say, ‘When such and such happened, I was angry because … In the future, let’s try doing it this way.’"
One issue farmers in a family business often face is treating their employees like adolescents, Williams says. "Treat your employees with respect and use adult-to-adult problem-solving techniques."
Martz says that one way to manage multiple workers is to make sure that issues are resolved quickly. "Let’s say two employees have different opinions on how to fix a piece of equipment. Talk to them, let each of them talk and get it resolved. You can’t let conflict fester," he says.
Martz adds that he’s not a judge.
"I don’t let things get out of hand, though," he says. "It has to be a team approach."
4. Set clear expectations. Many farmers do not set clear expectations for new employees. "In one case that resulted in conflict, the employee expected a clear boundary between at-work and not-at-work, where the farmer expected the employee to be on call 24 hours a day," Heffta says.
Furthermore, he says, it’s important to warn employees about upcoming busy seasons so they can take care of personal business, such as routine doctor’s appointments, ahead of time. "Perhaps suggest time off in July and August if it’s a grain farm."
While family members who grew up on the farm might automatically know the farm’s schedule, it’s not realistic to think that new employees will, Heffta adds. "It’s a good idea to set expectations for how employees should plan for the demands of the busy seasons."
5. Be fair on benefits. One benefit farmers might want to consider is a 401k retirement plan, which most businesses offer. "Farm salaries have to be competitive with the technical jobs
in town," Heffta says.
Farmers need to move beyond the concept of cheap labor, Heffta adds. "Cheap labor can become expensive," he explains. For example, say a cheap laborer is driving a semi and it ends up in a ditch. The careless employee not only risks the loss of the truck and the grain but poses a greater
safety liability problem.
Heffta believes that farm owners are responsible for defining the culture of the operation, which is crucial if you want to have a good reputation in the community. One point he encourages producers to think about is offering more consistent work hours, at least during the seasons in which that’s possible.
The reality is that the pool of workers who grew up on a farm is dwindling, Heffta says. As a result, future workers will come from towns and cities and will expect to be treated like urban workers.
"Farmers have to look at what there is on the farm that makes working there attractive," Heffta says. Some of those things might be the opportunity to work outdoors, to be a valuable member of a team and to have a unique work experience every day.