by Guest Blogger John Smith of Burlington, VT
Many farm workers long for the day when they have their own farm; a place where they can do things exactly the way they want. I had this dream for several years before starting my own small farm in 2011. Owning my own farm gave me a more complete picture of all the work that goes into operating a successful farm business. In the process I realized that there were certain aspects of farming that I liked more (production) than others (sales and marketing). After a stressful and rewarding first year, I realized that I wasn’t ready to farm on my own. I still loved farming, but I wanted more responsibility than a regular farm worker had.
I was fortunate to find work as a farm manager, first at Luna Bleu Farm in South Royalton, VT and now at Maple Wind Farm in Richmond/Huntington, VT where I oversee poultry production and processing. Farm management can be a great intermediate step for aspiring farm owners who want to gain more experience before striking out on their own. It also is a viable long-term option for those who enjoy some aspects of farming but don’t want to have all the responsibilities that come with operating their own farm business.
As a farm manager, my focus is on production. I spend my off-season creating enterprise budgets and production plans and designing our production and processing systems. During the season, I manage the daily operations of our poultry production and our inspected processing facility. I am primarily responsible for these aspects of the farm, but I always have a pair of experienced farmers, Bruce Hennessey and Beth Whiting, to turn to for guidance. This enables me to focus on the parts of farming that I enjoy while developing valuable skills like business planning and employee management that would also be useful if I decided to pursue another career. Since I am overseeing daily operations, the farm owners can focus on the bigger picture – farm infrastructure, long term planning, and especially sales and marketing. Thus, I can continue to develop my knowledge and skills without all the risks and responsibilities that come with farm ownership.
While farm management offers many great opportunities, there are drawbacks when compared with farm ownership. As a farm manager it is important to understand that I don’t have complete control; there are times (albeit few) when I would prefer to do things differently. Since multiple people are involved in decision-making, the process tends to take more time (but it often results in better decisions). Similarly, I sometimes wish I were more involved with all the different aspects of the farm, both to provide input in these areas and to broaden my learning experience.
A good relationship with your employer results in happier and more productive employees, and this is especially true for farm managers. I believe that shared guiding principles and goals foster the most successful working relationships. Why do you farm? Is it to maximize profit while working outside or is it to cultivate a certain lifestyle? It helps when the the people you work for have a similar answer to this question as you. Clear communication is another facet of a good working relationship; poor communication often results in misunderstanding and resentment. Shared outside interests also strengthen the bond between all workers and employers (an affinity for Boston sports teams has strengthened my working relationship at several farms). It can be difficult to get a sense of a new farm before working there, but talking with former employees is a great way to find out about farmers and what it is like to work for them.
Unfortunately, there are not many year-round farm manager positions available in Vermont. Many farm workers struggle with the seasonality of the work and some leave farming because of it. As the agricultural sector continues to grow in Vermont and as season extension and value-added processing create additional opportunities for off-season cash flow, there will be more year-round manager positions created. The result will be new farmers who are better prepared to start their own farm ventures and a more economically sustainable agricultural job market.
For farm employment opportunities…