HELP WANTED: Tips for hiring (and keeping) good farm help
By Betty Thom
Here we go again. Spring is just around the corner and we need some good help. You know, someone reliable, self-motivated, smart, industrious, experienced and affordable. Not like the ones we hired before…
So goes the farmer’s lament in the search for the right-hand man, so to speak.
“There are good matches for employees and farm operators out there,” says Ron Dvergsten, farm business management instructor at Northland Community and Technical College. “And there are ways to increase
your odds of finding good help.”
There were 30,380 farm workers employed for more than 150 days on farms in Minnesota and North Dakota in 1997. That number jumps to 104,782 part-time farm laborers in MN and ND, according to the 1997 USDA
Obviously, there are lots of workers and lots of farm jobs, Dvergsten says. The producer can take the first step in finding a good match by analyzing what kind of help is needed. The typical “wanted: hired
farm worker” ad leaves a lot to miscommunication, and may not clearly spell out your situation or needs: What type of farm do you run? What will be expected of the hired help? Will special education or experience be
necessary? Will there be supervision? Do you need help with management decisions? Do you have time to train? These are some of the questions a producer can ask before writing a clear ad.
Fine tuning the ad will automatically draw out the candidates that meet your needs. The ad, for instance, may now read:
Red River Farms has an opening for a person to assist the owner/operator as Lead Crop and Operations Technician on a small grain, soybean and sugar beet farm. The position offers considerable variety
and enjoyable working conditions with newer equipment. At least two years farm experience or equivalent and a valid driver’s license needed. Pay and benefit package based on applicant’s experience and training.
Write for an application or come to the farm and request an application by April 1. Red River Farms, Rt. 1, Anytown, MN 56000
“I think we’ve learned that you can’t take anything for granted,” says Julie Lemm, who farms with her husband, Randy, near Hillsboro, ND. “For instance, you would think that having a valid drivers license
would be a given. But it’s not. We had one applicant ride with a friend from the western part of the state because he didn’t have a license. We’ve also had a young migrant worker apply as a truck driver during beet
harvest. He was in the area with his family and had worked for a neighbor. He looked old enough so we assumed he had a license. He didn’t.”
Asking if an applicant has a valid driver’s license is legal, and smart, says Dvergsten. If you list the required job duties, you can ask the applicant if he would be able to perform those functions.
However, if the answer reveals a disability, which does not prevent him from performing the job tasks, you can’t use this information to deny him the job.
There are several questions that can no longer be asked during an interview because of federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Employers can’t discriminate applicants on the basis of race, color,
national origin, religion, sex, age or disability.
More information on what questions are legal during job interviews can be found under employment laws at www.my counsel.com or at your local employment agency.
Establishing employee guidelines
Employee handbooks are another excellent tool used by farm managers, Dvergsten says. The handbook
spells out your history and mission statement, policies, and procedures. Items like pay, vacation, use of farm tools and equipment as well as job descriptions can be defined.
The handbook can address specific topics like smoking and alcohol and substance abuse.
“We make it clear that smoking and chewing are not allowed in any enclosed vehicle or equipment, says Fred Mitzel, who farms near Edgeley, ND. “In fact, we give a bonus to employees who quit smoking or
chewing tobacco for a year, plus an additional bonus on the yearly anniversary. Since we also provide health care to full time employees, we feel this incentive is a win-win for everyone involved.”
Mitzel also cautions employees of the risks associated with hiring alcoholics. “We have zero tolerance for alcohol use while on the job. It’s also been our policy to not give out pay advances. We’ve
learned that you are not doing them a favor. It actually harms them, and you.”
A farm handbook example can be ordered through Northland Community and Technical College by calling Ron Dverg-sten at 218-773-7268 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Workshops and classes on employee
management are also available.
Once a good employee has been found, there’s still work to be done to keep them happy. Achievement (19.6%) was the number one answer given
by Iowa farm laborers when surveyed on what they want from their jobs. This was followed by personal growth (17.9%), supervision (17.8%), responsibility (12.1%), and recognition (8.4%). Salary came next at 4.4%,
followed by benefits at 1.3%.
Employees appreciate an enjoyable and fun place to work that gives them a sense of accomplishment. It’s up to the employer to offer a job that will develop pride, camaraderie and trust, Dvergsten says.
A good boss will work on communication skills. Besides asking open questions (requires more than a yes or no), you need to listen.
“You may be listening,” Dvergsten says, “but you still have to go through the steps so your employee knows you are listening. That means stop talking
and concentrate on what the employee is saying. Take time to respond to your employee’s questions or concerns. Make the employee feel that you sincerely heard them out.”
Speaking also has guidelines. Avoid using individual farm jargon. You may know where “Albert’s pasture” is (named after the farmer who raised cattle
there in the 1930s). But realize the new employee has no idea what you are talking about.
Also avoid using critical, threatening or vulgar language. Remember, you are trying to create an enjoyable place to work.
Communications is especially important when an employee begins a new job responsibility. Besides communicating safety points, you must also use your
teaching skills to train the employee. Sometimes that means a heavy dose of patience along with clear, concise instructions.
Many farmers set up weekly meetings to review farm goals, schedules, and concerns. The manager will also need to handle or delegate tax reports, paychecks and bookkeeping duties.
Granted, sometimes it would be easier to do the extra work yourself—sometimes. However, when you find the right person(s) to work on your farm, you will have more time to enjoy farming, Dvergsten says.
Taking steps to find and keep that “right” person will definitely be worth it.