Ag's HR Coach

Too Many Farmers in the Field

Lori Culler
By  Lori Culler , DTN Farm Business Adviser
Just like too many cooks in the kitchen, too many farmers in the field isn't always a good thing. (Photo by Jim Patrico)

Like too many cooks in the kitchen, if you dig deep into your operation, you may notice multiple family members across multiple generations are creating costly implications for the farm. These can range from lost time, to errors and common mistakes, to confusion and employee turnover. Over half of the farms we interact with struggle with employees being led by multiple bosses.

Too often, employees become confused with the different directions given from multiple managers. This leaves confusion on what tasks the employee should be focusing on, and what's priority. It's also hard to have tasks completed with consistency across the farm. Employees are looking to align with a manager, and when there are different approaches and behaviors being encouraged, the team is unsure who to follow.

Not having a set structure in place will lead employees to somewhat play the system. Employees will gravitate to the manager they feel most likely gives them the answer they are looking for or assigns them to tasks they will enjoy more.

It's also difficult for employees to make on-the-spot decisions, especially if each manager they work with has differentiating opinions. When the employee knows each manager would like the task handled differently, they are uncertain on how to complete the task and are slow at making decisions. Frustration often happens with in-field decisions, such as whether to turn on irrigation or wait until the next day, or whether conditions are right for planting. Having a central manager to answer each of the related questions is critical to keeping operations streamlined.

Changing a culture in which the normal protocol has been to listen to all managers takes a concentrated effort from the leadership team to develop new procedures. The management hierarchy should be in writing, listing who reports to whom and which responsibilities fall on which manager. Farms tend to stay away from a formal structure because of all the activities on the farm, and logistically employees are not all in the same location at a given time. This tends to lead to employees guessing whoever is nearby for direction.

To create a structure that fits for the farm, first create a roles and responsibilities chart, defining which managers will lead which areas of the farm. A manager may lead more than one area, such as grain facilities and maintenance versus another manager handing agronomy and field operations. You may have an employee work as an operator in the field, getting direction from one manager for a season and switch to another manager during winter months. As long as the transition is clear, the frustrations and inconsistencies will be at a low. The problem lies in having more than one manager during the same season or the changing of managers between seasons is unclear.

Be patient. Change takes time when restructuring, so allocate six months or more to really see any significant changes. All managers will need to fully support the change and stick to the new chart. Old habits are hard to change; an employee who has typically favored one manager will still tend to go to them for simple questions and direction. There needs to be a conscious effort to continually redirect employees to the right manager.

While we are in harvest, it's not realistic to implement changes. During the season, keep track of when communication fails, misdirection occurs, or procedures become disorganized. Right after harvest, while it's still fresh in the team's mind, ask about any frustrations or mishaps they had during the season. Then you can work in the new structure and action plans throughout winter.

Editor's note: Lori Culler grew up on a vegetable and grain farm and is the founder of AgHires (…), a national employment recruiting service and online ag job board based in Temperance, Michigan. Email and find other labor management tips under Resources at


Lori Culler