Scott Hays manages 20 full-time employees at his family’s hog business near Monroe City, Mo. His brother Todd Hays oversees three employees on a separate pork operation nearby. The brothers agree, managing workers isn’t easy, no matter what your farm size. Especially when family members participate in the business.
Scott learned military-style management while stationed in a U.S. Army missile site in Germany. “I learned to have a well-defined chain of command and defined goals and objectives,” he said. These rules hold true on the farm, but he’s found that farm workers want something more.
“I don’t have the authority to demand things here,” said Scott. “I have to understand each person’s demeanor and motivate them accordingly to get the job done.”
Scott and his wife, Riss, bought her grandparents’ farm in 1994, and today six family members own Two Mile Pork. Here, 4,200 sows produce about 2,000 pigs a week. In total, the crew cares for 40,000 pigs at a time.
Todd joined his wife Rosanne’s family operation 22 years ago. Rosanne’s parents since retired, and Todd and Rosanne now work with Rosanne’s brother, David, and David’s wife, Laura. The family and its employees care for 600 sows and their offspring, and grow most of their own feed—mostly corn and soybeans—on 2,200 acres.
“We communicate on major decisions,” Todd said. “We see each other every day, but we’re all busy. It’s easy to say ‘I’ll catch you tomorrow,’ and pretty soon, four or five days pass.”
Scott learned a lot about how to manage hired help through his involvement with the Missouri Pork Producers Association—he now serves as chairman. But mostly, the Hays brothers learned through trial and error. Their farms didn’t come with instruction manuals or human resources departments. We asked them to share their insights, and we also called on Val Farmer, a Missouri-based psychologist who works with farm families. 10 Today’s Farmer May 2011
Meetings fend off problems
One technique that helps is splitting up responsibilities. Todd focuses on row crops, while David specializes in growing finished pigs. Their hired workers also handle specific assignments.
“Our employees have been with us for two to five years, and they know what needs to be done,” Todd said. “We ask for their input, and we talk it through before making any big decision. At the end of the day, it’s my and David’s decision, but we want them to feel appreciated and part of the team.”
Val supports Todd’s approach, and urges all farmers to meet with their teams regularly. He suggests you appoint a moderator to move meetings along— someone who cares, but who’s not as passionate about issues as the boss.
“Meetings go wrong when the owner-operator is too invested to listen to everyone,” Val said, adding that running meetings more democratically makes the entire group more accountable. “The line of authority needs to be clear and respected, but you also need to develop teamwork. The goal is to invite discussion and build consensus so you can tap everyone’s creativity.”
Managing family on the farm
Along with growing hogs, Todd and Scott raise families, and their kids help out on the farm. Todd and Rosanne have two, and Scott and Riss, six. In both families, the oldest are in college.
Scott manages just three of his 20 employees directly. “If my children are on the payroll, they answer to one of the managers, not to me,” he said.
Todd doesn’t have that luxury—he and David directly supervise both family and nonfamily workers. Todd admits that people tend to have shorter fuses when working with family. “I try not to lose my temper, especially at harvest when there’s a lot going on,” he said. “I try to slow down and think about why we’re doing this. It’s not just a job for me; it’s a passion. I have to step back and remember that it doesn’t all have to get done today. That’s hard—farmers are always trying to get things done before the next rain cloud comes along.”
Val pointed out that regular business meetings allow you to handle family conflict in a businesslike way. “Include all family members along with employees,” Val said. “It takes out the drama when you handle conflict openly and fairly. Then when your family gets together socially, the farm isn’t the only topic.”
Gaining input also helps you create a successor, Val added. “Otherwise, your heir could be on the farm for 20 years but won’t be ready to run it when you’re gone.
Compensating help fairly
While family members often share the profits and inherit the farm, non-family workers don’t have that to look forward to. Still, while nonfamily employees may not get rich, many value the rural lifestyle and other benefits.
Salaries at Scott’s operation range between $20,000 and $26,000 a year for most employees, with managers making more. Beyond a base wage, he offers annual bonuses based on production that average $2,000 to $5,000 per employee.
Scott looks at surveys to make sure his employees earn a competitive wage, and his figures match up pretty well with a survey of 168 Iowa farm employees by William Edwards at Iowa State University. The employees weren’t related to the farm operator. The survey was conducted in 2005, but nationally, wages for all industry sectors haven’t risen much since then.
The average cash wage paid in the study was $28,256 per year before taxes. However, this made up only 81 percent of total compensation; employees also received benefits of $5,374 and cash bonuses of $1,010. Total compensation averaged $34,640, and varied from $12,920 to $70,300. Keep in mind the survey included supervisors. All employees worked well over 40 hours a week; some were paid annual salaries, while others were paid by the hour. The survey reveals other farm worker demographics as well—they averaged 15 years of experience, only five percent were female, and only one percent were born outside of the United States.
Val applauds incentive pay. “Family members generally take more responsibility than employees,” he said. “If you want your hired help to take responsibility, they should be compensated for it. Employees don’t expect a share of the wealth, but they would appreciate being compensated and respected. The more openness about financial arrangements, the better.”
In the Iowa study, 42 percent of employees received insurance benefits. Scott’s farm provides health insurance, including half of the cost for dependents, and workers can participate in a retirement program. Todd’s employees opt not to take health insurance since they’re covered through a spouse’s plan or a retirement plan from a previous job.
Todd can’t always offer everything that a larger operation can, like retirement benefits, but he does what he can. Like Scott, he provides production bonuses, and he often gives workers animals to process for meat. His employees appreciate little perks like the ability to borrow a tractor to blade snow off their driveways.
Both farms offer weekends, vacations and holidays off, but on a staggered schedule. “Pigs have to be cared for every day of the year,” Scott explained.
Attracting the best workers
Scott and Todd attract local workers without much trouble these days. “In the last few years it’s been easier to attract employees than at any other time in Two Mile Pork’s history,” Scott said, “probably due to the overall economy and the job market.”
Todd agrees that the recession changed things. “Our employees appreciate the job more, and we appreciate them more,” he said. “We don’t have quite as much turnover now.”
When recruiting, Todd used to ask other farmers and his vet if they knew of good job candidates. Now people call Todd to ask for work. “I hope we have a reputation of being fair,” Todd said. “I expect employees to work hard, but I don’t ask them to do anything I haven’t done or I’m not willing to do myself.”
Money is a factor in hiring, but Scott finds it has little impact on retaining employees. “You have to enjoy working with the animals—that’s what separates us from working in a factory in town,” he said. Also, employees who formerly worked in manufacturing tell Scott that they like farm work’s flexibility and variety.
Beyond looking for honest, hard workers, Scott seeks out people who think things through. “Due to technological advances, the pig business has moved from a labor intensive business to more of a thinking business,” he said. “We continue to reduce the amount of physical labor while increasing the technical skill needed. Some of our employees may not see a coworker or manager all day. We have to be able to trust that they are self-motivated."
Todd prefers workers with at least a high school diploma. As he points out, today’s hired hands must be able to read and understand labels on animal medications and keep careful animal records. Farming requires a lot of repairs, so mechanical, welding and plumbing skills also help. “Not everyone is willing to do what needs to be done,” Todd said. “The best have a passion for animals and really care about the farm. We have that in our workers now.”
Styles vary when you manage three employees compared to 20. “The more people you manage, the more personalities are involved, and that’s got to be more challenging,” Todd said. “At the same time, if one person’s out sick or on vacation, Scott has more people to cover it.”
Welcoming the next generation
The Hays brothers are waiting to see if any of their kids seek a career on the farm. “Any farmer who has kids hopes that someday they’ll be inspired to do what you do,” Todd said. “I don’t expect it, but if they want to join me, I’ll work to find a way to expand.”
But before your kids jump in, make sure you’re ready. “Don’t invite your adult child to join the operation before the farm can provide for another family income,” Val Farmer said. “Wait until you have enough work for everyone. Too many people with too little work leads to family intrigue. You may have to depend on nonfamily employees while the future farmer’s away, but avoid the temptation to bring them back too soon.”
Even if they leave for college, farm kids often return home to work on weekends, summers and harvests. Val believes that young people should travel and work for someone else before they return, and the longer they stay away, the better the transition. “The hostile dependency you see in adolescence can continue forever if they don’t develop perspective and confidence,” he said.
Whether you work with family members or not, managing workers on the farm isn’t easy, but Todd and Scott make it look that way. Take a page from their book, combine their ideas with Val’s, and you come up with a few basic guidelines.
Hold farm meetings regularly and include both family and nonfamily workers.
Listen as much as you talk, and keep your temper in check.
Compensate all workers fairly, and find ways to show your appreciation in other ways.
Give your adult kids a chance to break away before they come home to farm, and make sure there’s enough income to support them if they return.
Here’s Val’s final rule for striking a balance between family and employees: “To build a good farm business, operate your family like a business and treat employees like family.
Val Farmer's guide to managing with HEART
Newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster Val Farmer grew up on a farm in Montana and earned his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Arizona. He counseled rural families in the Dakotas before moving to Wildwood, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, a few years ago. Here?s his HEART method for how family and nonfamily workers would like to be treated.
H is for Hear me. Listen without interrupting so you know where the person?s coming from. Listening skills are the heart of communication. You must be a good listener to be a good negotiator.
E is for Even if I'm wrong, don't make me wrong. Find a way to talk to workers without judgment. Preserve the worker?s dignity, even in times of stress. Avoid outbursts?quick tempers take a huge toll.
A is for Appreciate the greatness within me. Farmers grow up with the goal of getting things right the first time. Usually, you aren?t great teachers. You?re quick to notice mistakes, and slow to recognize commitment and achievements. Tell people when they've done a good job.
R is for Recognize my positive intent. Remember that most people mean well, even when they go about things differently than you would.
T is for Tell me the truth, with compassion. Farmers can be blunt. Take a cue from women, who are usually more polite than men. Practice approaching issues in a soft, easy way.
Start by saying, -It seems to me?-How I feel is?? or -Help me understand?-Farm workers by the numbers
- The number of hired farm workers in the U.S. steadily declined over the last century, from roughly 3.4 million to just over one million.
- Hired help make up 30 percent of all farm workers (those on farm, livestock and nursery operations including supervisors). The other 70 percent are paid or unpaid family members.
- Most paid farm employees work on larger farms with annual sales of more than $500,000.
- About 20 percent of paid farm workers live in the Midwest.
Source: USDA Economic Research Service Report, Rural Labor and Education: Farm Labor