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 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Are the Employees on Your Farm Able to Criticize the Owner and Still Have a Job?

Farm Business Management Update, June - July 2008

By Peter Callan (, Extension Agent, Farm Business Management, Northern District

How many farms operate under the “Ben Cartwright School of Farm Management,” where the boss (owner) makes all the decisions and the employees execute the “orders?” Employees may feel they are always walking on “egg shells” in the presence of the owner because he frequently criticizes the speed and quality of their work. In these situations if an employee makes a suggestion to the owner, the idea is quickly dismissed and told that the idea will “never work on this farm.” Furthermore, the owner has the attitude of “I have farmed all my life; what would an employee know about operating my farm?” Employees may consider presenting ideas to the owner in a manner that allows the owner to think that the new information is “his idea.” An owner whose management style is “my way or the highway” may reduce the farm’s profitability since he/she will only make changes in the business when they believe that only “their ideas” will improve the operation of the farm.

Many farm owners believe that they must constantly “ride herd” over their employees. The employer has stated on numerous occasions that employees need to “tend to business and work hard; otherwise they can easily be replaced!” The employees may feel that the owner does not trust their judgment in making decisions and does not care about their physical and emotional well being. Employee moral may suffer and employee turnover may increase because the employees feel that the owner considers a model employee to be an individual with a “strong back and a weak mind.”

Merely talking about employee suggestions and not implementing these suggestions communicates the distinct impression that management does not wish to change the operation of the farm. Employee morale will decline because employees perceive that the owner will never change the way the farm operates.

As the former owner-operator of a dairy farm, I believe that a farm’s employees are the business’ most important asset. Employee development will be the key to the long term viability of farms because as farms grow and expand, they will be hiring additional personnel.

My employees were encouraged to attend industry and extension meetings and farm shows. The time employees spent attending industry related functions “on the owner’s time” reaped major dividends. By encouraging employees to attend educational programs, the owner conveys to the employee that the employee is a valued member of the farm operation. Second, the owner respects the employee’s judgment. Finally, the owner is looking forward to hearing the employee’s views on the program they attended. We all have different learning styles. Thus, owners and employees may pick up on certain concepts at a meeting that another person may miss. The time the owner and employees spend discussing their perspectives on an educational program may provide solutions to specific problems and strategies to improve the farm’s profitability.

Implementing employee suggestions show employees that the employer values their suggestions to improve farm profitability. I am a strong proponent of the “KIS” (keep it simple) style of farm management. My former herdsman, Ron, was adept at breaking down a task into the numerous steps. Time is money. Ron was able to streamline a task in a manner which reduced the time and effort for completion of the task.

Employee meetings provide a forum where the owner can train and update employees on changes in the farm standard operating procedures. Owner and employees can air concerns about management of the farm. Prior to the busy seasons (planting and harvesting crops), meetings on my farm focused on discussing the “game plan” of the day. Employee responsibilities and safety procedures were reviewed. At times, employees were cross-trained to handle tasks performed by another employee. The meeting concluded with a discussion that the farm operates as a team. Employees left the meeting with the clear expectation that the owner and employees will do what ever it takes to get the job done.

After the busy season has been completed, my employees and I “slowed down’ for one or two days. Herd, cropping, and financial records were updated. An inventory was taken of equipment that needed repairs and scheduled maintenance. Several days later, a meeting was held in which full time and part time employees discussed the farm’s performance during the “crunch time.” Employees were recognized for making decisions that contributed to the success of the task (e.g. quickly repairing broken equipment, taking care of the herd with a limited amount of help, etc.) Discussion was focused around the following questions: What worked well? What changes should be made? How should changes be prioritized? The owner and employees need to reach a consensus when the changes should be implemented. Then the owner makes the changes.

Owners and managers need to “cast their shadow” every day. This can be done through relationship building. Ask how the employee is doing (how are they feeling, how are employee’s children doing in school, sports, etc), how is their job going and what can the owner do to help the employee, what equipment needs repairing, what supplies need ordered, etc. Although asking questions may take less than a minute, this gesture conveys to the employee that the owner is interested in the employee’s health, well being, and helping the employee perform their job at maximum productivity.

Farm owners that are open and receptive to their employee’s suggestions create a positive work environment. Employees relish the opportunity to work for a business where the owner acknowledges and implements employee suggestions. Remember the old adage, “Sometimes two heads are better than one in solving problems” is a good one.

Best wishes for a safe and profitable 2008!

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