JUSTIN RAHN OF MT. CARROLL, IL, COULD HAVE worked for an agricultural retailer in Carroll County after graduating last March with a degree in agricultural production management. Rahn, 20, was named Outstanding Student of the Year at Kirkwood Community College, the No. 2-rated two-year ag college in the country.

Instead, he took a job as crop and livestock assistant on his parents' farm, where he'll apply his skills in site-specific farming. “Since GPS came out, my grandpa and dad have not incorporated it into their operation,” Rahn says. “I went to school for it, and I'm trying to bring it into the operation. Technology pays, but it costs, too.” Rahn will be in charge of data collection, hardware and geographic information software.

He represents a new breed of “specialized” labor being called to work on Midwest farms. These new recruits are wanted for skills or knowledge that owners don't have the time to learn but are nonetheless required on today's large crop farms. Machinery repair, computer electronics, agronomy, commercial trucking, terracing and commercial chemical application are all areas these workers cover.

On-farm specialists

Farm owners have historically relied on local ag retailers, implement dealers or custom help to do many of these jobs. But as operations get bigger, timeliness becomes more of a factor. Owners may not have the time to wait for the next available service person. To bypass the crunch, large-acreage farmers are buying their own commercial equipment.

“Five years ago, farmers expected the farm supply business to do their fertilizer spreading,” says Steve Rice, president of Agri-Tech Personnel, an ag recruiting company. “Now many have bought equipment to do the work themselves. That is shifting the labor burden from farm suppliers, which had to keep its equipment staffs up, to these large farmers.”

Seed and chemicals are their own new beast. Genetic engineering and advancements in chemistries require an agronomist's level of understanding. As a result, agricultural recruiters across the country are reporting an increased demand for farm employees who have these advanced skills.

Advanced training

Colleges and vocational schools are providing many students like Rahn with specialized skills. In the last five years, enrollment in Kirkwood's ag production program has jumped 25%.

The college has upgraded its curriculum and added more technology classes to meet demand, according to Dean of Agricultural Sciences Jerry Bolton. All students are now required to take courses in GPS and GIS in addition to crop production classes. The college also has invested in the latest equipment to give students hands-on training.

Applied chemistry also has been added to the program. “For years ag production curriculum in Iowa functioned with very little chemistry,” Bolton says. “But because of the herbicide concentrations used today, the chemistry component is becoming more important.”

The college continues to offer students certification for commercial pesticide licenses and commercial driver's licenses. “Those two things are always in demand,” Bolton says. “More farmers are marketing and hauling their own grain with tandem-axle trucks or commercial semis and are required to have a commercial license.”

Bolton says half of Kirkwood's ag graduates get jobs with ag retailers and the other half are hired on farms.

Can you afford?

Job titles for these workers are broader than their specialties because they are required to perform other functions as well on the farm. Common titles include assistant farm manager, farm foreman and farm technician.

AgriCareers, an ag recruiting company in Massena, IA, publishes an annual farm salary survey for two crop positions: crop manager and cropping assistant. According to Gary Maas, managing partner with the company, the salary for a specialist would depend on the level of management required.

“A crop manager is described as operating on his or her own, eventually reporting back to the owner,” Maas says. “A crop assistant is more of an operations person and would not have anyone reporting to them.” The average salary for crop managers is $41,000 plus benefits, while the average for crop assistants is $29,579.

Hiring a specialist for each function is cost prohibitive for most farmers. But at the same time, hiring a generalist to fill all roles is an old model that no longer works, says Gary Little, president of Agra-Placements, Lincoln, IL. “Farming has changed dramatically in the last 30 years,” Little says. “And you can't expect a generalist working on a farm to know everything about all of it.”

The right ratio

Little suggests that, instead of hiring one person and thinking he or she will be able to do it all, you should look at hiring two with complementary specialties. “For example, you could look for one person who is knowledgeable in seed, chemicals and fertilizer and another who is good at machinery maintenance,” he says. If the operation has livestock, a separate specialist should be appointed.

The exact number you can support largely depends on the size of your operation and whether your current method lets you get work done on time without crop yields affected. “For example, operations that are 2,000 to 5,000 acres almost demand at least one specialist devoted to your farm to ensure timeliness,” Little says. “And with that many acres, there will likely be things for that person to do all year.”

Farms with 8,000 acres may require two to four specialists, including one to haul equipment across counties and another to buy seed at volume discounts. On the other hand, an operation with 1,000 to 1,500 acres plus livestock may not be big enough to warrant one specialist for crops and another for livestock, Little adds.

If that's the case, specialists with commercial licenses can be hired out to do custom work during downtime. Another alternative is to form a hiring cooperative with other farmers. “Set up a co-op where you have three to four specialists that four operations employee jointly,” Little says. “So when Operation A isn't busy, the specialists would be directed to go to Operation B.”

One farm's setup

Gary and Janet Cross, owners of Cross Farms, Hartsburg, IL, have 14 specialists on their 5,000-acre, diversified farming operation. They are divided among four divisions: livestock, cropping, trucking and spraying. The crops division, for instance, consists of four specialists: a machinery technician, chemical and sprayer applicator, liquid manure applicator, and a person in charge of planting and tenant property.

Rick Farney, who has worked as farm manager in the crops division for 22 years, specializes in machinery and electrical work. “I do machinery maintenance along with planting, combining and daily operations,” he says. “The owners handle the agronomy and seed purchasing.”

Specialists are kept busy year-round through the operation's other businesses. “We do commercial trucking, commercial spraying and custom combining, and we own rental property,” Farney says. “In the winter, we buy houses, fix them up and resell them.”

Hard to find

The problem is that specialists are hard to find right now, and you'll probably need to check a variety of sources. Places to look include your local seed or chemical representative, equipment dealer, ASCS office, trade shows, other farm operations and college placement offices.

Little recommends establishing a network with farmers in adjoining states where you can ask for recommendations. “When you do that, you'll kill two birds with one stone,” he says. “You'll find out who is good at what they do, and you'll also find out about their temperament.”

If you exhaust your local sources, your next option is to hire a recruitment company. Recruitment companies have a large pool of qualified candidates to draw from and can pull candidates from other states. They not only find candidates but also prescreen them. Clients pay a one-time fee based on salary once the candidate accepts the job.

Once you find good candidates, you need to offer an attractive benefits package to persuade them to work for you. Benefits may include medical and dental insurance, 401K plan, vehicle, housing, profit-sharing program, and a year-end bonus that rewards employees in a profitable year.

Tug of war

Ag recruiters, whose primary clients are farm suppliers, say farm owners already are competing with farm suppliers for job candidates. And in many cases, farmers are winning. “Equipment dealers have told me that these large farmers are taking their mechanics and service managers away,” Maas of Agri Careers says. He adds that farm supply cooperatives are reporting the same pressure on their hired agronomists.

Rice of Agri-Tech Personnel says farmers also are competing with dealers for commercial applicators. He predicts that in another three to five years the two will be competing for management-level people who will be able to manage the farm along with this specialized workforce.

“The caliber of person farmers will need to run a multimillion-dollar farming operation and live in a rural area are the same type of people who are already out there working for a farm supply business, which is a multimillion-dollar business,” Rice says. “So you will see a tug of war for both better-skilled and management-level people between the big farms and the existing small-town businesses that are out there.”

DO YOU NEED A RECRUITER?

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 LLC
15010 Hornback Rd.
Smithville, MO 64089
800/532-1525
www.agri-techpersonnel.com

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

New Century Ag Recruiters
28715 JJ Hwy.
Norborne, MO 64668
660/484-3874
www.centuryag.com