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Hiring the Good Agriculture Employee

Farm Business Management Update, February/March 2006

By Bill Whittle (, Extension Agent, Farm Business Management, Page County

When farmers discuss problems in agriculture, sooner or later labor issues come up. The refrain starts with "How can I find and keep good employees?" and is often followed with "How much should I pay an employee?" Employee compensation is a touchy topic in all industries, but especially in agriculture because the owner is often receiving a less than generous return on his or her investment. From an employee's perspective, the farm work environment can be difficult - long hours and the work physically demanding. The question, "How do you hire and retain good farm help?" requires separating the two components - hiring and retaining.

The first step in hiring is to determine exactly what you need from an employee. Create a job description after determining the tasks you want your new employee to perform. Are you seeking a manager, skilled or unskilled labor? How much supervision is required for this position? How many hours per week and under what conditions are you asking the person to work? A primary position as milker may require a different skill level than a person feeding the cattle. Also consider additional tasks that a worker may be asked to perform such as a milker that also has responsibility for heat detection or a cow feeder that grinds and mixes all feeds. Consider differences in work conditions - a milker in a state-of-the-art facility would have a more comfortable work environment than a milker in a stanchion barn. Also, consider the added benefits of a routine position. For example, a large catfish farmer once told me that his lowest paid employee, the fish feeder, was probably his most valuable employee because the fish feeder could pick up subtle changes in behavior that foretold a disease problem sooner than anyone else because he saw the fish several times a day. How valuable is this employee to the success of this farm business?

Step two is finding a source of good labor. This is often difficult because many people use farm work to fill in the time between more lucrative jobs. Farm employment is seldom considered a career because advancement, benefits, and security are seldom comparable to other industries, but the best source of a labor pool is referrals. Advertisements can work but you must make sure you have time to adequately interview and research applicants to insure compatibility.

Step three requires that you develop a total compensation package to offer employees. You must sell your open position and the benefits to a potential employee, i.e. an opportunity to work outside in a picturesque environment, along with the more concrete components of the compensation package. "Total" does not mean offering what a factory offers but developing a package that will secure the good employee you seek. There is no easy answer to the question, "What should I pay my employee?" other than, "Enough to keep him happy and willing to work for you." Your competition for the good employee is not only your farming neighbor but in the new warehouse, factory, or even fast food establishment. Research your competition and determine what they offer and see how your compensation package measures up. Farms may have difficulty competing strictly on dollars so it is time to become innovative to attract the person you need for the job. Compensation packages include everything you provide to the employee including salary, vehicle for personal use, paid sick leave, vacation days, flexible schedules, insurance, retirement program, home, utilities, beef, milk, vegetables, use of equipment to plant and harvest gardens, meals, training, incentives, plus potentially many more components. Imaginative thinking can pay off with satisfied employees.

Hiring a new employee is only the first step in personnel management. However, if you do not attract a good employee, there is probably no reason to think about a retention program. Once you attract the good employee, you can then strive to develop a retention program. Many businesses have found out too late that it is more economical to keep the good people rather than suffering through turnover caused by having the wrong people or not striving hard enough to keep the good ones.

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