The saying “good help is hard to find” is a cliché for a reason. Farm operations of all shapes and stripes tend to struggle with finding and retaining top talent. So what’s a farmer to do when the skill set of a prized employee may also be desired by other nearby businesses? Here are five strategies to help you become a destination place of employment in your community:
Break the tie
“You can get similar pay from any number of other employers,” northern Indiana farmer Kevin Stoy points out. “So why us? We need something that will break the tie.”
Stoy knows the struggle firsthand. He works with 11 full-time and another 11 part-time employees during busy times of the season, such as harvest. Having a competitive salary is a foundation for staying in the game. But the vast majority of non-farm employers provide two additional benefits that Stoy thinks is necessary if he wants to keep up: group health insurance and a simple IRA with an employer match.
Those three things combined — competitive salary, health insurance and a basic retirement plan — are “table stakes” for staying competitive with area non-farm businesses. That is, good employees will be harder to find if those basics aren’t being offered.
“If other employers offer it, we have to do the same,” Stoy says.
If the table stakes are already there, how do you break the tie? That’s highly dependent on your budget and your employees’ needs. For example, you may not be able to pay for pickup trucks for everyone working on the farm, but maybe setting up a group cellphone plan is more reasonable. Other farmers prefer setting up overtime or bonus incentives when certain objectives are met. Find the sweet spot that enables you to break the tie when it comes to employment options.
Focus on flexibility
If time is money, why do so few people treat these two things equally? That’s a question that Liz Griffith has been mulling lately. Griffith is a human relations consultant with Minnesota-based Encore Consultants, a group that helps farmers with business growth and transition planning.
She has been watching a slow but persistent generational shift unfolding for the past several years. Let go of the idea of staffing your operational needs with farm kids who are willing to put in 60- or 70-hour work weeks, for example.
“That’s not the reality of the business today,” Griffith says. “The most important things farmers can do is to be more flexible with scheduling. Employees so much want a better home-life balance. I’m not saying it’s easy, but flexibility is what people are looking for these days.”
That sentiment has resonated well with people like Doug Langley, a Kentucky tobacco and corn farmer. As one example, he says if an employee needs to see a son’s football game on a Friday evening and there’s still work to be done, he’ll jump in the tractor without any reservations to help.
“I’m willing to do the work also,” Langley notes. “I’d never ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t also do. I’m not above that.”
Or consider a look at some numbers on Lon Frahm’s Kansas farming operation. The common areas include eight fully stocked refrigerators (“No one who’s hungry makes a good employee,” he says), but no employee ever punches a time clock at Frahm Farmland because none exist on the operation.
“That’s part of being a professional,” Frahm says. “We’re more goal-oriented than time-clock oriented.”
Flexible time off is possible with a little creativity, adds Davon Cook, principal with K-Coe Isom.
“Successful farms push themselves to do some things differently,” she says.
As that relates to work schedules, there are multiple approaches to consider:
- Give every employee a rotating day off.
- Let every employee stay home on Sundays (even if it costs the operation money).
- Deploy an evening-only crew that works a four- to six-hour shift.
- Allow office-based employees some work-from-home opportunities.
“The point is, family habits are changing, and we have to adapt no matter how difficult it is,” Cook says.
Flexibility feeds into one of the most important aspects of healthy labor relations by fostering a healthy and engaging work environment.
“People want to be a part of something positive and exciting,” Cook says. “A little effort on team pride can go a long way. There are a lot of ways to engage employees.”
Frahm has stretched company culture as far as he can. His community in northwest Kansas is one of the more remote parts of the state. Yet, it’s a four-hour drive to Denver, so Frahm began taking employees to outings that would help “stretch their world a little.”
Over the past two decades, they’ve been to a hockey game, basketball game, the symphony, Broadway shows, hot air balloon rides, skiing trips and even cruises.
In farming, employees often have fewer chances to interact with each other compared to labor in other sectors, Griffith notes. Because of that, she argues that team bonding can pay dividends on budgets both big and small. If the tab for a skiing trip is too steep, what about a round of golf?
“If you have good culture on your operation, when the employees are working, they’re working hard,” Griffith says. “But if they’re frustrated and stressed, it will eventually affect both work and home life.”
The healthiest work cultures also tend to place at least a little importance on community outreach, she adds. That’s easier than ever in the age of social media, but a boots-on-the-ground approach is still very effective.
What about sponsoring a local Little League team? Or better yet, think about creative opportunities that are unique to your farm. Griffith remembers past trips her family’s dairy operation made to bring chocolate milk into town for the football team on Friday nights. They would also take flower bulbs over to the neighbors each spring.
“Open the lines of communication with your neighbors and community,” she says.
You don’t need an advanced business degree to realize good communication is important to a successful enterprise. But what does “good communication” look like, anyway?
For Darren Frye, founder of Illinois-based Water Street Solutions, it took a series of business highs and lows to find an answer that worked best for him.
Frye turned to the playbook of Jack Stack, a savvy entrepreneur who turned around Missouri-based SRC Holdings from the brink of bankruptcy into a thriving multi-million-dollar business. Stack’s book, “The Great Game of Business,” is revered as a leader in promoting open-book management.
Frye says that management style is highly dependent on transparency and high-level trust.
“What we do consistently is just tell our employees what is going on,” he says. “Whether it’s good or bad, they know.”
That includes a lot of financial information. (Stack famously taught all of his employees how to read the company’s profit-and-loss statements.) But Frye says the line is drawn at disclosing personal information such as individual salaries.
Trust becomes more inherent because everyone is on the same page, he says. “If you know everything that I know, then you don’t have to trust me,” as he likes to put it.
The specific “Great Game of Business” approach is not for everyone, Frye admits. For example, sharing balance sheets with employees could create confusion for anyone who doesn’t understand financial intricacies. But the core value of transparency is still very important to fostering good employee relations.
“You don’t have to share everything, but you have to communicate where you are,” Frye says. “Be honest and open when necessary.”
Go the extra mile
Langley contends he hasn’t done anything “earth shattering” to foster good labor relations, but the casual observer may disagree. For starters, Langley decided to learn Spanish to better communicate with some of his H-2A labor from Mexico.
“I see it as me adapting to them,” he says. “It’s about empathy. How would you like to go to work every day and not be able to understand your boss? I wanted to be able to carry a conversation, and communication is key with any employee.”
Langley didn’t take any courses or classes on his bilingual journey. Instead, he opted for a more immersive experience with his farm workers learning “one word at a time, every day.” Someone taking this kind of slow-but-steady approach could grow their vocabulary by nearly 2,000 words in five years.
But Langley hasn’t stopped there. Another batch of his H-2A workers hail from South Africa. They speak English perfectly fine, but they also speak Afrikaans (a loose derivative of Dutch). Langley saw this as another opportunity to connect. Learning Afrikaans is not inherently harder, but he says it has been a slower process than learning Spanish because everyone can easily revert back to English if they start to get frustrated.
Like Langley, Stoy is a strong believer in the power of empathy — both in positive situations and difficult ones.
“Happy people get a whole lot more work done than unhappy people,” he says. “The happier people are, the better the business runs.”
At Frahm’s operation, the company outings tend to be the talk of the town, but he says his biggest victories have come from focusing on education. He routinely offers employees training for various certifications and has even sent a few to college. Nine of his employees also farm some of their own ground, and they get additional access to various farm equipment and discounted inputs.
“My job is to provide them with the right tools and education, and let them go,” he says. “And education is a tool itself for the jobs that require higher-level skills. We have a career plan for everyone.”
Frahm says the Golden Rule is important: Treat others how you want to be treated. But he also thinks there’s credence with the lesser-known Platinum Rule: Treat others how they want to be treated.
At the end of the day, whatever you do to foster better labor relations and employee retention probably won’t yield immediate results.
“It’s a lot like being a parent,” Stoy says. “You’ll never know if you did a good job until years down the road.”
How you can become a ‘C’ student
In school, top students strive to get straight A’s. But when it comes to labor relations, author and consultant Jeanet Wade urges farmers to think about the following C’s to engage and retain top talent:
Clarity. Without clarity comes confusion, Wade says. “And the only people on your team who are OK with being confused are the ones just putting in the time to collect the pay.” When employees know you have a plan both for them individually and the operation as a whole, they are less likely to “jump ship” for someone who seems to have a better plan, she says.
Connection. This feeds into a sense of both safety and dependability. “Continuity of meetings, habits and behaviors, social gatherings, even physical environment are all ways that people can come together and maintain connections,” Wade says. “The sense of belonging that comes from being connected as a team increases loyalty.”
Consideration. Hold your employees in high regard, and schedule some one-on-one time with each of them. That will help them feel truly appreciated and less likely to leave, Wade says. “Give the best players and the ones you truly can’t afford to lose the time and attention they deserve,” she says. “Don’t take them for granted.”
Confidence. This may not sound intuitive, but a good way to improve confidence is by embracing failure, Wade says. “Encourage everyone on your team to give a new capability a shot and learn from the highs and lows, mistakes and wins,” she says. “If they’re gaining in capability and confidence where they are [now], your shining stars are only going to stay and shine even brighter,” she says.
Contribution. How do you know you have a fully contributing team? Wade suggests making sure everyone has the room and opportunity to build trust and share their unique talents. Top talent is always driven by the need to contribute in meaningful ways, she says.
Challenge. It’s important to have meaningful contribution among all employees, but how are you challenging top performers? “When we challenge employees with a ‘coaching mindset,’ they manage change effectively. They stop being complacent, and they embrace healthy conflict,” Wade says. “Put together a strong mentorship, coaching or sponsorship program in your organization.”