Managing Farm Labor a Skill in Itself

2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Managing farm employees can be challenging. In fact, many farmers would rather do just about any other farm task, according to Jim Crawford, owner of New Morning Farm in Hustontown, Pa.

Crawford talked on the topic of labor management at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference on Feb. 8 in State College.

It’s easier for many farmers to do a tangible thing like shop for equipment parts than to tackle labor management problems, he said.

But Crawford makes the case that, because employees are by far the most expensive budget item on a farm, as well as the most “elastic,” it is important to manage them well.

Since his farm started in 1972, Crawford has had 40 years of experience in developing systems for recruiting, managing and incentivizing his farm’s employees.

New Morning Farm is an organic vegetable farm, typically very labor intensive, and employs about 25 workers each season. Crawford said the farm spends between $200,000 and $300,000 each year for labor. His next biggest farm expense is typically $40,000 to $50,000.

“Labor is 35 to 65 percent of all our expenses,” he said.

That variability or “elasticity” in labor costs can affect the farm’s profitability greatly, he said, so he analyzes the reasons there is so much difference.

“For example, people vary in the length of time it takes them to pick vegetables and do other tasks,” he said.

Crawford has found that controlling this variability is critical, and he said he believes labor costs are very responsive to improvements in management.

“A few things can change so much,” he said.

Employees are different, he said. Some just want to be given a hoe and told what to weed for the day. Others show organizational and leadership qualities, and can be encouraged to manage a crew or organize the day’s activities.

“If you have five employees, have one of them be the group leader or manager. Get them to help you manage labor,” he said. “Encourage your managers to take the bull by the horns and deal with labor issues or problems that come up.”

The idea is to encourage workers to do their best.

“It’s not about discipline or slave-driving or supervision,” he said. “It’s a matter of motivating and encouraging employees training them, and providing leadership.”

Crawford has developed several systems to manage tasks. The three top jobs at New Morning Farm are field manager, produce manager and crew leader, and each has a detailed job descripton.

Additionally, each crop is given a specific manager, a “crop manager.” This employee is responsible for two or three crops in their entirety through the season — from soil preparation to planting to harvesting.

Crawford has found that the crops get more careful attention this way. Each crop manager gets a written definition of all the general guidelines required to manage any crop, with five main areas — crop monitoring, projections and inventories, harvest management, quality control, and crop notebooks.

Choosing which crops they’d like to manage can be an incentive for employees, Crawford said. And he explains to them that even if they don’t learn all the crops at once — which many new employees would like — that there is great value in learning two or three crops inside and out.

The crops managers are not assigned until May, when the employees have settled in, he said.

A “crop schedule” sheet establishes the “theme” for the year, Crawford said. It shows the employees how the season will unfold as well as what they can move on to as the year progesses.

In addition to having written job responsibilities, which each employee receives, Crawford has a written weekly plan for the farm posted and a daily task sheet — the “plan of the day” — that is handed to each employee every morning.

The transparency of knowing what the farm’s goals are each week and each day, and who is assigned to each job, allows each employee to be part of the bigger picture and know what is expected of them.

The daily task sheets are prepared and written, not by Crawford, but by the crew leaders each evening.

“It’s important to know that each job is covered by someone,” he said. “The daily plan is great for morale.”

It also encourages employees to take ownership of the work.

“People like having responsibility for an area, making decisions about something,” he said. “They want a meaningful role.”

Crawford also suggested several <\h>labor-saving tips.

When New Morning Farm installed a pallet jack and loading dock in its packing area, along with a concrete floor, it saved significant labor by allowing vegetable bins to be unloaded from vehicles and easily rolled to coolers or to packing areas as needed.

Crawford said many small farm operators feel they cannot afford the expense of a setup like this, but in his analysis, it is a worthwhile labor- and cost-saver over the long run.

As for hand tools, Crawford said it is labor- and money-saving in the long run to buy only the best tools and to have plenty of them on hand. Every one of his employees gets a good-quality walkie-talkie for ease of communication.

As for equipment, the farm uses harvesting belts in the field to load the wagons. And a transplanter saves tons of labor, he said.

Any type of weed control tool can save labor as well, according to Crawford, such as duck feet cultivators.

The farm also has a fleet of used trucks and vehicles in a parking area so that employees do not have to spend as much time walking to fields. They are for farm-use only and are not registered for road use.

“Don’t pay employees to walk to fields,” he said.

Crawford said he also spends a significant amount of time in December and January — more than most farmers he knows — recruiting the best employees he can find.

He words his ads very carefully and sets up many interviews. Prospective employees must visit the farm, he said. Crawford spends lots of time in the interview, being aware that even so, the person might not work out.

“I want them to evaluate us,” he said.

He explains to applicants that the farm job is an unconventional one and that each farm is different from every other one. He goes over the farm jobs in great detail.

He said he asks each person about his or her future plans and about the possibility of working a second year, even though he tells them he is only making a one-year contract with them, just to find out if they could be interested in longer-term employment, an important possibility.

If, after a year, Crawford would like an employee to continue, he offers them generous incentives to stay on, from large bonuses to paid vacation and better housing. Employee retention makes the farm more profitable, he said.

“The best people make all the difference at a farm,” he said.

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