Striving Towards Sustainable Employee Management
How to Keep Yourself and Your Farm Staff Happy - by Becky Maden
In the fall of 1995, I found myself living in the loft of a barn, surrounded by a heap of hay, piles of mouse droppings, my pack of belongings, and a small mattress. Below me, the cows, horses, and sheep sighed loudly all night long, and I jolted awake each time one of them peed. My six work days a week were filled with harvesting, weeding, carpentry projects, cooking meals, and asking vigorous questions of the other apprentices and farmers about how and why everything was happening. And at the end of each month, I received $100 in pay.
I would never trade a moment of time on this farm, or on the several other farms where I apprenticed through my late teens and twenties. But by the time I graduated from college with a full-blown passion for farming coupled with the expectation that somehow my college degree made me more valuable, I found myself looking for salaried jobs managing farms. I had neither the savings nor the experience to buy my own farm, but I wanted to steer clear of ever working for a “stipend” again. So I accepted a job managing a small CSA in Colorado, and suddenly found myself hiring my own seasonal interns that were paid a stipend.
Hiring a seasonal farm crew flipped my identity on its head. I was 22 and not confident in much about myself except for my ability to efficiently follow the directions of a boss. How on earth did I possess the wisdom to tell anyone – much less people who were older than I – what to do?
Twelve years later, I can still openly admit that management is my least favorite part of farming. It is hard to do gracefully and impossible to do perfectly. However, there are a few tricks to make management a rewarding role for you, your co-workers and your staff, and how to keep yourself open to change based on experience, feedback, and self-awareness.
Hiring and retaining seasonal staff is the first step in a smooth management experience. Who works at your farm is something you have control over, and it’s important to honestly acknowledge that we all prefer to work with people we like.
On our farm, we try to make the hiring process a relatively formal affair. When we first get an inquiry about work, we write back asking for a cover letter and resume. This is a great way to push someone into a little extra effort, or to help them realize that we are professional. It also allows us to learn a little bit about the candidate on paper before we invest time interviewing them.
If we decide someone is qualified for an interview, we invite them to the farm, where we sit and ask a series of interview questions that are tailored to our farm business. We then walk around the farm and have a more casual chat, allowing them to ask questions about our farm.
Throughout the interview, we are not only attuned to the information they give us, but to their vibe or overall demeanor. I’ve learned not to underestimate our intuition of a candidate’s personality and if they would be a “good fit”. We also take into careful account how our returning staff will fit with this person. And finally, we think about how happy the candidate might be working with us.
Checking a candidate’s references is invaluable in getting a sense their potential to fit into your farm. Sometimes references make or break the decision for us – a few years ago, we interviewed a woman who, although nice, seemed a little too fancy in dress, makeup, and demeanor to fit into farm life; but when her former employer (a renowned vegetable farmer) told us that she was one of the hardest and most wonderful workers he’d had, we hired her immediately. And she was fantastic. Similarly, we were on the verge of hiring a young man two seasons ago – who interviewed well and looked good on paper – but when his former employer agreed that he was really nice, but simply couldn’t stay on task, we didn’t end up offering him the job.
Balancing the Personal with the Professional: FARM MANAGEMENT
Hours and hours of mundane tasks with co-workers can lead to unexpected sharing and personal closeness. The bonds of friendship that I’ve forged working on farms are some of the strongest in my life. But from a management perspective, this closeness needs to be balanced with an expectation of professionalism and an establishment of boundaries that makes everyone feel safe and supported in the farm’s work environment. Below are a few guidelines to managing a professional and friendly farm work environment:
Create a personnel manual. While initially this task may seem tedious, it’s a great opportunity to articulate the expectations of your workplace both for you and your staff. This provides everyone with an understanding of the legal underpinnings of the workplace, it provides them with the steps to take should they have problems, and it also allows you to clarify expectations that are specific to your farm.
Expect promptness. Our crew gathers in the morning a few minutes before the work day begins. If someone arrives a few minutes late, they often find the rest of the staff already in the truck, pulling away to start work. This experience alone is enough to encourage someone to arrive promptly in the future; it’s a rare occurrence that we’ve had to talk to someone about arriving on time in the morning. Similarly, they stick to a 1 hour (unpaid) lunch, and on most days, they quit when the clock strikes 4 pm. This schedule might seem posh to people who are accustomed to their employees working long summer days, but for us it eases the management burden because we know exactly how much work to expect from our staff in any given day. It also keeps them motivated and they feel secure in knowing that they will get a lunch break and will be able leave at a reasonable hour. And for us, it’s wonderful knowing that everyone will be there at the proper morning hour.
Structured learning during the work week. Keeping our staff happy is often related to communicating the how’s and why’s of the farm operations. This should happen daily on an informal basis, and at least weekly on a formal basis. At the cornerstone of our operations is our weekly planning meeting when we collaboratively make a giant list of everything that needs to happen. We allow at least a full hour for this meeting, and it is usually incredibly informative for all of us.
Staff empowerment. Because I don’t enjoy the “manage” part of management, it’s really wonderful to realize that trusting farm staff with responsibility eases your burden while enhancing their experience. It’s hard for me to let go of jobs I enjoy, and it’s also hard not to quickly glance at a project that is underway and wonder what the heck is going on. But knowing that a job gets done well and efficiently is far more rewarding than gazing over someone’s shoulder and offering suggestions of how you would do it. I learn only by doing things (and by messing everything up once first); so offering our staff this opportunity to learn by taking on individual tasks strengthens our farm in the long run. It also offers seasonal employees a strong vested interest in the farm – and keeps many of them coming back year after year.
Structured social times outside of work. Even though it might seem like everyone has seen enough of each other during the day, structured social activities outside of the work day can allow everyone to appreciate each other in a different setting. We try to have at least one staff party each year that includes partners and families of our staff. Numerous other social events happen during the year, from after-work happy hours, to outings to other farms. All of these events help round out the work-oriented understanding we have of each other’s lives.
Mid-season check-ins and end-of-season interviews. Even in the midst of a sweaty July, we make sure we schedule a meeting with all of our staff to learn about how the season is going. Offering our staff members the opportunity to sit down in the shade and have a conversation about what they’d like to do on the farm (Drive the tractor more? Work more CSA pick-ups? Not be stuck weeding all the time?) and also to hear how they feel about the season is an invaluable conversation. We also ask them what we could be doing better as managers, and since this happens mid-season, it allows us time to improve for the remainder of the season. At the close of a staff member’s seasonal employment, we have a final chat that allows us to revisit some of the topics and goals we discussed earlier in the summer.
Open-minded humility. My experiences both as an employee and as a manager have taught me that you can never get everything right, and if all you see is the mess of all your shortcomings, there will be no peace at night. Farming is so full of the juxtaposition between gentle beauty and messy reality. I see this no more clearly than in my own approach to farm management, when one moment I am listening compassionately to a staff member’s relationship dilemma, and the next moment I am sprinting across the field to catch an irrigation blowout. There is some magic place where these two extremes overlap, a place that exists between extreme toughness and tender gentleness, and it is in this middle ground that I think the best management exists. Many days, shaken by the stresses of farming, I crave the simplicity of that hay-strewn loft and my hundred dollar monthly salary. But good, efficient staff management is just one more fiber in the giant web of sustainable farming; and without it, many of our businesses would never thrive