Strong recruiting in a tight labor market

Woman berry pickerIt’s April and the activity level on your farm is increasing fast. You pulled out the standard tools you use for recruiting your seasonal farm crew…you placed a few ads, called the local employment office, put up a few posts on your Facebook page, sent off an email to your former employees (the ones you want back)…and nothing. A few half-hearted emails and a voicemail that got cut off before you could get the return number.

You’re thinking, “What happened? It’s not poetry, but it’s always worked before.” Usually by now you’ve got most of your crew lined up.

The difference this year is that you are facing increased competition for a smaller workforce. The economy is starting to regain some strength and workers that were unemployed are finding their way back into the workforce. So what’s a farmer to do?

Unfortunately there is no easy solution to this dilemma. You are hiring in a competitive market so you have to find a way to make your job stand out from the noise of all the other starting positions.

Here are a few tips that might get your farm labor opportunities noticed!

  • Put your marketing hat on. Use the same skills you use to sell a new customer on your products. It may not sit well with you but you are now in a position of competing for labor. That means you have to shift from “what are you going to do for me” to “what am I going to do for you” thinking. Review your job postings and advertisements to see if the position sounds interesting, fun, and an opportunity to grow or whether it sounds repetitive, boring and uninspiring.
  • If you are marketing your jobs to Millennials understand that a sense of purpose and mission is important to them. Share your vision and why you do what you do.
  • Keep the expectations reasonable — try to stick to eight-hour shifts, clearly identified days off, and have some scheduling flexibility.
  • Be competitive in wages. Familiarize yourself with the cost of living in your area and know what other entry-level jobs are paying. Consider incentives that provide ways employees can increase their wages — end-of-season bonuses, for example.
  • Emphasize any non-wage perks you can provide — it might be free/discounted produce, weekly staff cookouts, leadership opportunities, training events, etc.
  • Frame the expectation in a positive way — instead of “work outside in all weather” try “opportunity to be active, working outdoors” — you’ll have time to spell out the realities during the interview.

While these tips may help you recruit a larger pool of potential workers it will not necessarily yield a highly motivated field crew. You’ll have to screen carefully, interview thoroughly and follow up with reference checks. Remember, skipping any of these steps can lead you into trouble. There are worse situations than being short a few workers. But that’s a story for another time…

Posted in Farm labor and human resources | Tagged ,

Tips for a successful farm startup

Twenty years of observing new farmers has taught me that you are an enthusiastic, passionate, ambitious lot. This is a good thing because farming, especially in the early years, will take a toll — not just your body but your brain and sometimes your commitment as well. It takes a lot to get a successful farm business launched and when the results are not quite what you hoped, it can be a major blow to your dreams.

In sorting the successful start-ups from the challenging ones there are some lessons to be learned. They are not easy lessons but for your consideration:

  • Avoid the tendency to over-diversify your production. Especially in the early years when you need to focus on product quality and efficiency. Taking on too many profit centers can stretch you thin and leave you with mediocre results. In the early years concentrate on excellence in one or two areas — then expand.
  • Invest in post-harvest care. Inspecting tomatoIt is a shame to spend all that time and money on producing high-quality products that you mishandle. At the end of the day post-harvest washing, packing, and storing will impact the quality and flavor every bit as much as the careful selection of seed and your production practices.
  • Limit your market channels. It sounds counter-intuitive but in exactly the same way that over-diversifying your product line can lead to chaos, over-extending your market reach can yield bad results. If you are focusing your startup on direct marketing then choose one or two channels that will compliment one another. For example, farmers’ markets and a CSA can work well together. Once you have some production experience you can always add markets and/or leave some markets behind. Concentrate your efforts on learning your costs of production so you
  • chardbundlesListen to your customers. The hardest thing for any business owner is to hear negative feedback. I often hear farmers talking about customers’ “unreasonable” demands and lack of knowledge. Ok, some customers are clueless jerks. But, here’s the thing…the customers you have close relations with are sort of like family…they are not going to want to tell you the bad stuff. It’s the difficult customers you might hear the truth from, even if the way they deliver that truth is mean-spirited. So, even though it is hard, listen to the negative feedback and mine it for the tidbits that you can use to improve. Maybe those beans were a little past their prime. Those last steaks were really tough. And that lettuce…it was gritty and buggy.
  • Have a mechanization plan. Even though you may not have the resources to buy every piece of equipment that you need, that should not stop you from having a plan in place. Keep a list of the equipment you need and prioritize the list. What do you need first and what can wait a few years? Then start taking classes in how to maintain and repair equipment. Learning how doesn’t mean you have to do the work yourself–it means you will be better able to explain your needs to others and gauge the quality of their work.

The tricky part of farming is that you can do everything right and still not end up where you hoped to be. And that is why you need to plan carefully, proceed with caution and love what you do.

Posted in General info, Scaling up

Be Prepared for Avian Influenza

By now, you have probably heard of Avian Influenza (AI) and its devastating effect on the poultry industry in Midwestern states earlier this year. State agriculture officials are preparing for an outbreak this fall or spring in Vermont. Read this week’s guest post from UVM Extension Livestock Specialist Joe Emenheiser to learn about avian influenza and precautions poultry owners — large and small — can take to minimize its impact here.

How does the avian influenza virus work?P1000287

  • Domestic poultry are considered susceptible to a Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) virus which is carried by wild waterfowl. Backyard flocks are just as susceptible, if not more so, than commercial operations.
  • The wild birds are not clinically affected, but the virus is deadly in domestic birds that come in contact with contaminated manure, feather dander, dust particles, water, etc.
  • To date, over 10% of the nation’s egg layer population has been lost to HPAI. Presently, there is no human health risk, although viruses constantly mutate and this is being closely watched.
  • Wild waterfowl migrate along “flyways” after commingling in between migrations. Our concern is that birds which brought the virus to the Pacific, Central and Mississippi flyways earlier this year have been commingling with birds that are headed south along the Atlantic flyway and will be returning north in the spring.

Continue reading

Posted in production information

Research in Progress: Unpacking the farm labor puzzle

Worker cutting lettuceOctober 2015.  One of the strategies new farmers often use to learn their craft is to observe and talk with other farmers that appear to be having success in similar operations. In fact, farmer-to-farmer learning has a very high preference score in nearly every aspect of farmer training.

In this research project, we are using the same principle to identify labor management practices. By interviewing experienced farmers who also appear to be effective labor managers we are learning about the process of recruiting, hiring, training and retaining the right employees.

Throughout the summer and fall our research team has been conducting interviews with farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. As we collect their stories about what works and what doesn’t we’ll be looking for themes to emerge and building our next research phase from these findings.

In the meantime, no reason not to share a few of the pearls that have emerged from these interviews. So, a few keys to successful farm labor management from the experts in the field: Continue reading

Posted in Farm labor and human resources, Resources for Beginning Farmers

Outsmarting Quackgrass


Quackgrass shoots and rhizomes. Silver dot is a quarter for size reference.

Quackgrass, Elymus repens (L.) Gould, is a major problem in cropping systems across the United States and Canada. It is a persistent, perennial, cool-season weedy grass that has the unique ability to hide below the surface and suddenly invade an area. When you least expect it, quackgrass can shoot its leaf blades, spreading its durable rhizomes into a thick mat.

Once quackgrass invades, you will have no choice but to address it. According Penn State Extension Dwight Lingenfelter and William Curran, authors of the bulletin Quackgrass Management, an Integrated Approach, “This competitive perennial grass can reduce crop yields up to 95 percent.” And… “Once introduced into a field, quackgrass is nearly impossible to eradicate.”

First and foremost advice for anyone assessing, preparing or managing land for a cropping enterprise: Know quackgrass.  And don’t get discouraged, because you can overcome it.  Read on for recommended land preparation and management practices. Continue reading

Posted in Land access, production information, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment