Labor shortage? Not here.
Gene Wine, a Brinker Farms employee for six and a half years, walks through a barn where replacement gilts are housed.
During busy seasons, the entire Brinker family gathers in the field for supper together. In front are Myra and Wyatt Suete. Behind them are Emma Suete and Holden Brinker. In back from left are Travis Brinker holding Cade; his wife, Kaley, holding Garret; Gary and Amanda Suete, holding Tucker; Cody Brinker; and Susan and Kenny Brinker.
Farm employee Luke Moore drills a coverFarm employee Luke Moore drills a covercrop into a newly harvested corn field onthe Brinkers’ Auxvasse, Mo., farm.
Michael Jenkins holds one of the piglets in the Brinkers’ farrowing house. He has worked for the operation for six and a half years.
Kenny Brinker, right, hired Shane Sorrell more than 25 years ago whenKenny Brinker, right, hired Shane Sorrell more than 25 years ago whenthe family was still in the construction phase of their swine operation.In fact, Sorrell lived on the farm before the Brinkers made their movefrom their previous home in Washington, Mo. Each Friday, Sorrell andBrinker go over the week’s production reports.
Kenny and Susan have secured the future of their farm by adopting an estate plan and allowing their children to own a majority of shares in the operation. That means the Brinker grandchildren, including Cade Brinker, right, and his cousin, Myra Seute, may have a chance to farm here, too, someday.
Finding and retaining qualified, dependable workers is a perennial challenge for farmers and agribusinesses. Don Nikodim hears that complaint at every meeting he attends, and he attends plenty as executive vice president of the Missouri Pork Association.
“There are lots of job opportunities for good people, but farmers tell me they find that many people don’t really want to work,” Nikodim said. “Sometimes they won’t even show up, or they only stay a couple of days.”
Hog and dairy producers need help year-round. Workers must be on the job every day, and the duties are often physically demanding. As Nikodim said, “If you don’t take care of the animals, they won’t take care of you.”
Adding to the dilemma is the fact that Missouri’s labor market is tighter than the national average, according to Joe Horner, agricultural economist with the commercial ag program at the University of Missouri. In August 2019, the national unemployment rate was 3.7 percent, while Missouri’s was 3.2 percent. When other jobs are readily available, farmers have an even tougher row to hoe when it comes to recruiting and retaining workers, Horner added.
“Most young people are less willing to work long hours for weeks at a time, which is common on livestock operations and row-crop farms during planting and harvest seasons,” he said.
Swine producer Kenny Brinker knows these challenges firsthand, but he’s found a formula that works on his sow operation near Auxvasse, Mo. He employs eight people, and most have been with his team for years.
The secret is simple, Brinker said: “We treat ’em nice and pay ’em well. We never have a problem with labor.”
Brinker Farms maintains an average of 2,800 sows at the homeplace. Shane Sorell manages a seven-member team that feeds and cares for the sows and their piglets. He came to work for the Brinkers at age 25.
“I was fortunate to stumble across Kenny 25 years ago,” Sorell said, adding that two other employees joined the team 21 and 19 years ago. “He’s laid back. He takes care of the overall business and lets us take of the pigs.”
Kenny and his wife, Susan, have two sons, Travis and Cody, who work on the farm, along with the Brinkers’ son-in-law Gary Seute, who is married to their daughter, Amanda. The family members focus on raising 4,200 acres of corn and soybeans to provide the feed needed for the sow operation. They also take care of incoming breeding stock quarantined at another location.
The Brinkers encourage swine facility employees to work independently. In fact, family members never enter the sow buildings, largely to preserve biosecurity. They communicate with the sow management team by phone, fax and a weekly production meeting.
“We give each team member responsibilities, and they figure out what to do,” Brinker said. “The team makes its own decisions.”
While livestock employees often work long hours, Brinker employees work from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., with two half-hour lunch breaks. Since pigs require daily care, employees rotate through a 42-hour workweek, and each works every third weekend. Most have earned three weeks of vacation, and all receive six paid holidays along with time off for medical and personal business. They also receive health benefits.
Brinker said he seeks out good people and makes them feel appreciated and respected. On the rare occasions when the farm hires new workers, the recruits go through a probationary period to make sure they fit into the culture.
“We pay our employees more than what other similar operations pay, along with a year-end bonus,” he said. “Our expectations are high and turnover is low.”
A veterinarian once told Brinker he was paying his people too much. “I explained that our costs per pig out the door are less than other farms,” Brinker replied.
Indeed, production levels and profitability are the true tests of any livestock operation. Brinkers’ productivity ranks in the top 5% of hog farms.
“Other producers can’t understand how we get that kind of productivity,” Brinker said. “While the average hog produces about 25 or fewer piglets a year, we produce about 31. We produce a lot of pigs.”
Carol Gregg, who owns Flexible Ag Staffing based in Chillicothe, Mo., has experienced the challenges of finding dependable, qualified workers in today’s competitive labor market. Her company provides staffing assistance to agribusinesses in five Midwestern states—mostly agricultural cooperatives, including MFA Incorporated—placing about 2,000 workers a year. While she doesn’t provide workers to farms, agribusinesses run into similar labor issues.
“Finding people is getting more difficult, and our services have become more important to employers,” Gregg says. “We handle background checks and drug screening. We only hire drug-free workers, and 90% of applicants don’t pass the drug tests or background checks.”
Gregg said people move from job to job quickly these days, always seeking higher pay. In the 17 years that she’s owned the business, turnover rates have grown from 7% to 50%.
That’s why MU’s Horner thinks Brinker and others like him are on to something.
“Farmers seem to understand that future workers will be more highly skilled, more expensive and more of a critical asset worth retaining,” Horner said. “Many farmers tell me they would rather pay more for capital investments and for better-trained employees than to deal with the headaches of entry-level workers and the turnover involved.”
For the Brinkers, family members are key to their labor force, and the farm’s future is in the hands of the next generation. It’s just as important to keep them satisfied as it is unrelated employees, Kenny Brinker said. He and Susan adopted an estate plan years ago, and their children now own a majority of shares in the farm.
“If I kick the bucket tomorrow,” Brinker said, “we have it all set up to keep the business going.”
While Brinkers’ youngest son, Cody, remains single for now, Amanda and Gary have four children under 5, and Travis and his wife, Kaylie, are raising three under 5.
“The grandkids already take turns in the buddy seat in tractors and other equipment, and we enjoy picnics in the field,” Brinker said. “Our kids look forward to their kids working on the farm in the future.”
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