Finding and keeping good help on crop farms could get tougher this year. As the economy heats up, more employees will be drawn away from the farm to fill positions opening in industry, according to Steve Rice, director of agricultural placement at Agri-Tech Personnel.

“The economic recession of the last two years allowed farmers to use local help that would normally have found business in a hotter economy,” Rice says. “But last fall that changed. Co-ops were calling us wanting help for their grain harvest and spring agronomy season. And the farm-background candidates who were available a year or two ago are now being grabbed up by farm supply dealers.”

Gary Little, president of Agra-Placements, says the number-one quality employers want today is a good work ethic. And employees who possess it will be in high demand and vulnerable to recruitment. “It is kind of like cash renting ground today,” Little says. “You may be renting ground at a certain amount of money and tomorrow you may be notified you no longer have it because someone offered ten dollars more. It can happen the same way with candidates working in these positions.”

The intense labor situation comes at a time when labor on farms is already stretched thin due to the growth in farm sizes. Owner-operators are trying to farm more acres with the same or smaller staff to minimize costs in an age of low crop prices.

As a result, qualified help will be at a premium this year. And it is an input cost you will need to manage closely to keep your farm operation running smoothly. We asked the industry's top agricultural recruiters for their best advice on how you can find and keep qualified help on your farm.

How to hire

According to Agra-Placements' Little, hiring the wrong person can cost you in five ways: training time, wages, benefits, correcting the person's mistakes and emotional duress. Therefore it makes sense that you should spend time making the right decision when hiring. Little says these four common mistakes get in the way of doing that:

  • Hire based on whether you like the person. “Most farmers hire people like themselves,” Little says. “And that can cause them problems.”

  • Hire from the interview only. During an interview, you need to remember that the person there wants the job. It is in his or her best interest to tell you what you want to hear and omit details that could be damaging.

  • Hire from references only. Checking references is better than hiring from just the interview, Little says. But most references have been hand-selected by the candidate and may be biased in their evaluation.

  • Hire the best of the worst. This last mistake happens when farmers get in too much of a hurry to fill the position. “You haven't found exactly the person you want, but you go ahead and make someone an offer because you are tired of interviewing,” Little says. “Big mistake.”

You can get past these mistakes by removing the emotional part of hiring and making it a “position-focused” decision, Little says. “Erase the thought of what you liked or disliked about the [previous] person in the position and what the position was in the past,” he explains. “And only think about what you want from the position.”

Focus on the position

Little says most employers hire someone and change the position. “That is where the profitability goes down,” he says. Instead, ask yourself, “What do I want from the position?” And then, “How will this person meet the objectives of the position?”

The best time to change position responsibilities is when the job is open, Little says. So before hiring, you should review and clarify job requirements. Stipulate which of those requirements are “absolutes,” which ones you would “like to have but are not necessary,” and which ones are “superficial.”

Little says that everyone has faults or things they do not do as well. The important thing is to identify whether the person fits the position despite those faults.

He also offers a few don'ts. “Don't ever hire a person based on the statement, ‘I think the person can do it,’” Little says. “It sends doubt and you are picking the best of the worst. On the other hand, when you say, ‘I know this person can do it and do it well,’ then you've got an immediate hire probability.”

Also, don't ever say, “I like this person,” Little adds. “Whether you like them or not, ask yourself whether they will get the results you want from the position.”

Finally, once you identify the candidate that best fits the needs of the position, check references and talk with other people where the person worked before and ask them position-related questions. “Ask questions like, ‘Tell me about how this person got his jobs done, how he organized his work, or how this person grew,’” Little says. Asking position-related questions is legal and important, he says, because past performance is the best predictor of future performance.

A company solution

NC+ Hybrids is a company that focuses on the position when hiring. This closed cooperative owned by 15 farm families looks for people whose technical skills match the needs of a company in the business of seed research, production and sales.

Specifically, the co-op uses what it calls a “depth chart” to define what it is looking for in a position. The chart lists the scope of the business and area for which the person will be responsible, required experience, goals for the position, and critical personal dimensions. “We define what we are looking for and then set out to find that person,” says Gene Kronberg, director of sales and marketing at NC+ Hybrids.

For sales manager positions, they look for five qualities: integrity, vision, initiative, leadership and adaptability/flexibility. They interview candidates based on whether they have those dimensions by asking open-ended questions. Here are some examples:

  • Integrity: “Tell me one thing you are exceptionally proud of. On the other hand, what do you wish you could do over again?”

  • Long-range vision: “Where do you see this business five years from now? What will change about how we operate the farm? What is important today in this business that may not be important tomorrow?”

  • Initiative: “Describe a typical workweek. When does it start and end? What time do you usually make your first sales call? How many calls do you make a day?”

  • Leadership: “Give me an example of a leadership role you have held, whether in high school, college or later.”

  • Adaptability/flexibility: “How would you handle a situation in which you sold 5,000 bags of a hybrid and realized you would only get 3,000? What would you do?”

Kronberg says defining dimensions up front is key to finding the right person for the position. The strategy has resulted in minimal mismatches. The co-op's retention rate has stayed around 92% for a staff of 117 employees.

Keeping employees

Agri-Tech Personnel's Rice says employees are less loyal and more mobile than they were a generation ago. The attitude is a carryover from the dot.com generation of the '90s, when jobs were more available and employees would switch jobs frequently, he says.

Downsizing in agriculture's middle management in the last two years further eroded that loyalty. “As a result, it is getting tougher to keep a job candidate in any of our industries who is loyal to his employer and staying long term,” Rice says.

But companies are figuring out how to reverse that trend. For example, Gary Maas, president of AgriCareers, conducts studies on why employees leave jobs. “A quarter of the people who leave we can't do anything about,” Maas says. “But we can do something to keep the other three quarters.”

Companies voted the 100 Best Places to Work by Fortune magazine have three elements in common. One is fairness, which Maas defines as “looking out for each other.” Within that category of fairness is empathy. “It is asking, ‘If I were in that person's shoes, what would I want to have happen? How would I want to be treated?’” he says.

The second element is pride, which comes from knowing you did a good job. “It's a can-do spirit or that feeling of knowing we fought our way out of the valley,” Maas says. Pride can be instilled by providing employees with feedback on their performance or by sharing production records.

The third element present in top-rated companies is camaraderie, which means having fun working together. This comes from recognizing and rewarding employees within an organization with birthday celebrations, awards for anniversaries or benchmarks in service, and praise in meetings.

Maas says all three elements are important to keeping employees long term. And farm employers who are successful practice what these top-ranked companies are doing for their people.

View them as important

A case in point is Kim Drackett, owner-operator of Fairholme Farms. Drackett, who was educated at Dartmouth and whose great-grandfather invented Drano, instills these characteristics on his 1,500-acre crop and livestock farm in east-central Indiana.

He views his 12 employees as the operation's most important asset. “They are certainly more important than a tractor or planter,” he says. “And we do different things to show they are valued and part of the organization.”

For example, he shares production records with his employees to let them see the impact of their efforts. “Gary Maas says it best,” Drackett says. “If you don't share your production information with your employees, it is like being in a bowling alley and not able to see the pins. So we are very open with our records.”

And he makes sure employees are “talked up” in meetings when they do a good job.

Once a year Drackett hosts an employee appreciation night. Typical outings include going to the theater or a concert or eating at a Japanese restaurant to learn how to eat sushi. “We always try to find something unique that has broad appeal and is a lot of fun,” he says. Employees also get a holiday bonus and a special gift engraved with the farm name and year.

He says caring about people and recognizing their value is the attitude that drives the operation. And he makes sure management promotes the same philosophy by holding weekly management meetings off site.

During the meetings they discuss employee challenges and brainstorm solutions. “If an employee has a problem, they try to understand why,” he says. For example, the employee may have misunderstood a process, is upset about an unrelated issue or has a substance-abuse problem. “Everybody wants to do a good job,” he says. “So rather than dealing with it by disciplining them or cutting their pay, we try to understand why and then work with them to deal with the underlying issue.”

Drackett says wages are the least important aspect of what makes employees satisfied. But he makes sure wages are competitive within the industry and provides good benefits. “Health insurance is key,” he says. He also sends his staff to seminars and involves them in on-farm research so they can gain knowledge and skills.

Empathy is essential

Brent Sandidge of Marshall, MO, is another example of a successful manager. Sandidge, who is owner of a 2,000-sow farrow-to-finish hog operation and 4,000-acre row-crop farm, shows a high degree of empathy, which Maas says is key to employee retention. Sandidge has been able to retain a staff of 20 in an industry that has been unstable over the past five years. Three of his employees have been with him for more than 20 years.

Sandidge and assistant manager Glenn Fry have three management principles that drive the operation. One is to lead by example. “Dad always told me, ‘Don't ask anyone to do anything you are not willing to do yourself.’ For example, if it is a dangerous job or dirty and if they see me doing it, it means something to them,” Sandidge says.

The second is, know your people and be able to talk with them. For example, Sandidge and Fry meet with the staff every morning, have dinners with them at the farm, and visit with them whenever possible about performance or personal problems. When there is a problem like divorce that can affect an employee's performance, Sandidge makes himself available for talking and may shift the amount of responsibility the person has until he or she is able to handle it.

Their third management principle is to treat people the way they would want to be treated. That includes complimenting people when they do a good job and providing them with responsibility, training and opportunity for growth. But, at the same time, Sandidge says, one of the worst things you can do is to promote employees beyond their capabilities and have them struggle and feel like they are failing. “So you have to recognize where a person wants to be,” he says.

Sandidge also believes in letting employees make decisions. For example, his sow complex manager decides what kind of artificial insemination equipment to use. “He knows what is working and what isn't and is going to make a much better decision than I am on that issue as long as he is able to quantify the results,” he says.

Sandidge thinks a lot of personnel management is common sense. “It is just bringing it up to a conscious level so that you pay attention to it and be reminded of what is important,” he says.

Hire a “bench person.”

For those situations where an employee does leave, Maas recommends that employers with eight or more employees have a “bench person” on staff. This is someone who rotates through a lot of different positions until there is a full-time opening.

Having a bench person ensures the work gets done in the event an employee leaves unexpectedly. It also gives you the luxury of selecting someone you really want rather than hiring someone fast just to fill the position.

“The biggest issue when an employee leaves is that the employer has no one to draw from and they are forced into hiring to fill the bill,” Maas says. “A bench person lets you avoid that.”

Need help?

Ag recruiters can help you find and keep qualified help.

As Midwest farms continue to get bigger and more complex in their operations, more farmers are turning to employment recruiters to help them find qualified help.

“I used to work with co-ops less than $10 million,” says Steve Rice, director of agricultural placement at Agri-Tech Personnel. “Now a lot of farmers are that big. The sheer size of the business is causing some to need us.”

Recruitment firms can preselect and prescreen candidates according to your requirements from a database of qualified people. They also can test for commitment and provide contractual agreements to guarantee employment for a certain length of time.

Once candidates are hired, recruitment firms can help with performance evaluations to measure satisfaction. Cost is usually based on a percent of the new hire's first-year salary. Here are just a few of the firms that can help you in your search:

Agra Placements Ltd.
(one of five Midwest offices)
2200 N. Kickapoo
Suite 2
Lincoln, IL
888/696-5624
www.agraplacements.com

AgriCareers Inc.
(one of two offices in Iowa)
Highway 92 West
Massena, IA 50853
888/224-5621
www.agricareersinc.com

Agri-Tech Personnel Inc.
4444 N. Belleview
Suite 209
Kansas City, MO 64116
816/453-7200
www.agri-techpersonnel.com

Hansen Agri-Placement
2608 Old Fair Rd.
Box 1172
Grand Island, NE 68802
308/382-7351
www.hansenagriplacement.com