"So often, we read articles about the manager, but it's the work at home done by dedicated employees that makes it possible for us to spend time in the office, attend seminars and participate in commodity groups," says farmer Rock Katschnig. "I couldn't do half what I do if I didn't have someone I can trust to get things done."
Almost half of the respondents to a Top Producer survey this fall reported they have valued, long-term employees.
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Rock Katschnig, Prophetstown, Ill.
As a teen, Rock Katschnig planned to attend General Motors Institute to pursue a career with an eventual focus in stock car racing. Then, in 1971, his brother, who was going to farm, died in an auto accident. His father died a year and a half later, when Rock was just 17.
The livestock and machinery were auctioned and an employee of 18 years, Joe Van Damme, found himself without a job. He went to work in a factory.
Following graduation from college in 1977, Rock started farming and in 1983 he asked Joe to come back, offering him the farmhouse he originally had while working for Harlen. Joe is still a fixture at The "K" Ranch, as Katschnig's operation is still known.
"I can't begin to tell you how important it is to me to have someone like Joe," Katschnig says. "Every so often, one of those ‘Oh, no!' events occurs, like there's no water pressure for the farm. Because Joe has institutional memory of where the water lines are, we can solve the problem quickly."
From Joe's perspective, it's the life he wants. "I enjoy the fresh air. And having spent much of my life farming, I've seen a lot of change. City folks are always amazed at how things are done on the farm now."
Katschnig hopes his three-year employee, Matt Ziggenhorn, will be a long-timer too. "It's very hard to find someone you can trust with the size and complexity that machinery has today," he says. "With a 24-row planter and auto-steer, we gained a lot of productivity. This year, Matt and I were able to get a lot of the corn in early despite the weather challenges.
"I know we have to compete with big companies," he says. "I provide a good home in a good school district and a very fair salary. Most farm employees also like having a somewhat flexible schedule."
Matt does appreciate the seasonality and having "a little free time and flexibility in summer and winter." In addition, he says, "I love to farm because it's something different every day."
Les Imboden, Circleville, Ohio
Les Imboden has long been a fan of his employees, but now he can hardly find the words to express his gratitude. On Sept. 22, his father, in his mid-80s and, until then, the picture of health, was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. "No warning signs, just bam, there it was—the cancer death sentence," Imboden says.
Harvest on his farm had just started. His parents live an hour away. "My senior employee told me over and over what the right thing to do was—‘Take time to be with your dad. We will handle harvest,'" Imboden recalls.
Six weeks later and with his dad "days or weeks" away from his final breath, Imboden had been on the farm only a few days since the diagnosis. Harvest rolled on.
"Fire drills seemed like such a waste of time in school, remember?" he says. "We never practice or plan for a dying cycle and its effect on harvest. But it came without invitation and consumed and mentally paralyzed me completely.
"My employees know my heart and I know theirs," he says. "That's what lets good businesses grow and great businesses charge into the future."
Imboden attends many seminars seeking the knowledge to make his business great. He applies the advice he has heard, so his employees were not only willing but well equipped to take over.
Develop Effective Team Members
The most fundamental thing to do is get the right people on the bus, in the right seats, next to the right people to mentor them, and throw the bad people off the bus ASAP. Then the bus goes happily down the road like a family minivan full of excited kids going to Disney World. The goal is not just the destination, but a happy trip along the way.
> Expect a lot and give employees the freedom to accomplish tasks "their way" as long as it meets deadline and they can prove their way is no worse than yours.
> Let them be better than you. If you have the attitude that no one can meet or exceed your skills, you have set your farm's death sentence. Your job is to be the connector of a network of great employees, not their warden.
> Cross-train so they can slide into the next seat when needed.
Top Producer, December 2009