A 20-year tradition is in top gear on a bright, cool, mid-September day in the bustling kitchen of Kerri and Kyle Mehmen, near Plainfield, in northeast Iowa. Seven women are cooking -- boy are they ever.
Two large frying pans sizzle under the weight of several pounds of hamburger. Two women are slicing and dicing vegetables and sausage, while others peel potatoes. Containers with completed dishes are being labeled. Food containers -- both empty and full -- cover the dining room table and the surrounding floor, and are stacking up in the adjacent screen porch.
The din of preparation is frequently drowned out by the laughter of the group, the wives, mothers and friends of the dozen men who will soon be spending 16-hour days harvesting the year's crop at MBS Family Farms.
In the span of just several days, this group will prepare and freeze more than 430 individual meals to be eaten during the next few weeks. Most of these dinners will be served off the tailgate of a pickup at the edge of field but, sometimes, in the cab of a tractor, truck or combine.
Parents Stan and Karmen Mehmen began mass preparation of meals in 1995 as a way to eat well while on the run during harvest. MBS Family Farms has grown threefold over the past decade and now employs a dozen full-time people in addition to seasonal help. Even so, these meals remain a part of their commitment to -- and a symbol of -- a family atmosphere in what has become a much larger business.
"These meals have always been important to us," Stan says. "We want to keep a family atmosphere here. If we're too big to do this, to be personal with our people, then we are too big."
Daughter-in-law Kerri Mehmen agrees. "The family aspect of this is that we're not sending home hungry boys," she says. "Their families know we are taking care of them."
Mehmen family members and employees are welcome to help with and join the dinners, no matter where on the farm they occur. "This gives everyone a break from work. Generally, we aren't talking about farm logistics at these meals but are having conversations about what everyone's families are doing," Kerri says.
The Mehmens decided long ago the three core values for the business would be: family, integrity and professionalism.
The "family" part of the equation doesn't happen by accident, explains Whitney Fisher, senior human resource consultant with Illinois-based FamilyFarms Group. MBS Family Farms is one of 65 operations across the country that uses FamilyFarms Group for financial and management consulting services.
"You want your operation to be family friendly, so the hours aren't too overwhelming for employees," Fisher says. "Some operations stagger shifts. They may also be able to offer flexibility of scheduling during planting and harvest, so employees can attend family and sporting events."
That has certainly been the case for Randy Holthaus, a nine-year veteran at the farm and MBS operations manager. We caught up with him and his wife, Melissa, as they watched their daughters, Hannah and Britney, playing volleyball for Nashua-Plainfield's state tournament-contending team as harvest loomed.
"We've got three kids," Holthaus says, "and they're all three- or four-sport athletes. I don't make all the sporting events, but I hardly ever miss a home game."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Holthaus has also been known to return to work once an event is over. "Our employers are interested in us and do things for us that companies in town wouldn't do," he says. "As a result, the employees here really take pride in what they do."
This focus on family for a fast-growing business has been a challenge. "Our commitment to our family culture hasn't been without some issues," Kyle says. "We hold ourselves accountable to the same standards as we do employees."
The operation's policies regarding time off were recently modified, giving priority to time off for family events to those employees who have given two weeks notice.
"If we know in advance, we can bring our part-timers in to fill those places," Karmen says. "The big thing for us is knowing in advance."
"If there's a championship game," Kerri says, "sure everyone's off to go watch. I want Stan and Kyle to be able to go to our kids' activities, as well."
The cooking activity in the kitchen is winding down for the day, and supper in the field is at hand. The logistics of where and when the meal will be eaten are being negotiated via mobile phones. Sometimes, the entire group eats in one place, but often meals are delivered to workers who are miles apart.
During the course of harvest, the kitchen crew will make 41 different meals and use 35 main-dish recipes. Kerri, Karmen and others will also make a dessert and a side dish. Sealed in reusable plates, the hot meals are put in coolers and loaded into a pickup.
As for favorites, the guys are most partial to the baby back ribs, meatloaf and ham balls. The men seem less enamored of the minestrone soup -- which they have dubbed "pickle soup." The women, who like the soup, continue to make it anyway, and, somehow, it still gets consumed.
Not too far from the main farm, nearly a dozen people -- children and adults -- congregate near a lowered tailgate as the sun begins to set. There is a lot of quiet while eating, then storytelling accompanied by a lot of laughter. Within 40 minutes, though, the crew is saying goodbye to spouses and children, and heading back to their combines, grain carts and semis to work into the night. The remnants of the meal are packed up.
In part, fostering this atmosphere at work is just good business. The Mehmens have been very successful, but Stan says there was room for improvement.
"When I was a young parent, I worked all the time, and that was probably a mistake," he says. "I don't see why my employees have to do that, and I don't want my kids to do that."
Stan helps two of his young grandchildren up the ladder to see inside the cab of the combine before he goes back to work for the night. He smiles.
"Grandkids are my second shot at it."
LAYING OUT THE RULES
There are at least three "foundational documents" that a business -- particularly a growing business -- should have regarding employees, says Whitney Fisher, senior human resource consultant with FamilyFarms Group.
The business should have an organizational design and a chart that depicts how information flows, and how the chain of command functions within the business. This also helps to determine where gaps may exist within your organization.
Every employee should have a job description -- what tasks they perform for their job and to whom they report. The description helps you evaluate whether prospective employees fit the existing job.
"You can then better evaluate what skill set you need from an employee coming into the business versus what skills you are willing to train them once they are hired," Fisher explains.
There should also be an employee handbook that lays out the rules for working at a business. The book establishes expectations and holds all employees accountable to the same standards. Employees can then be evaluated against clearly defined expectations.
To some extent, once these pieces are in place, "then your business starts to run itself," which often helps create schedule flexibility, Fisher says.
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