Editor's Note: In this occasional series, DTN details how to recruit and retain a talented farm labor pool. Read past installments at http://www.dtn.com/….
INDIANOLA, Iowa (DTN) -- Many farmers despair over finding good, hard-working seasonal employees. However, Kevin Green, a corn/soybean producer in Dewitt, Iowa, has a waiting list of people wanting to work on his farm. Green, who farms with his wife, brother, a non-family partner and Green's adult children as Greenview Farms, would be the first to admit he does not do everything right, and what works for him won't necessarily work for everyone. Over the years, however, he has found ways to attract and retain good farm help using these strategies:
1. Provide daily lunch. "From Day 1 we started providing lunch for our employees," said Green. "Lori [Kevin's wife] said, 'You know if we don't provide food, some of them wouldn't eat lunch and that's not healthy.'
"It's also a way for me to stay in touch with them one-on-one," Green noted. "As they eat their lunch, we chat. I listen to them and find out their needs."
Each day as midday nears, Green texts his employees telling them which restaurant he is going to that day and they text back their lunch order. "They either know the menu by heart or there's a copy in the cab. We try to support the local restaurants, which they appreciate and I pick up eight to 10 lunches to go. If it's a nice sunny day and we aren't in a hurry, I'll come out with chicken and mashed potatoes and those who are close by will eat together."
2. Work around employee's schedule. These are seasonal employees, meaning they often have other jobs or priorities. It's worth it to Green to work out accommodating schedules, so he doesn't have the cost of full-time employees.
Two of his springtime employees are retired factory workers. "They are very prompt, they will work the early shift. They are used to knowing their schedule and they do not want to work long hours. Then we have students who like working late and can't come early. Some employees work full-time and like working two times a year to pick up some extra money. I have two ADM workers who schedule their vacation around our busy times.
"They enjoy working on the farm. And they enjoy driving new equipment," Green explained.
Randy Schoening, who is a partner in Greenview Farms, handles all the scheduling. "He makes it work," said Green appreciatively. "We found being flexible and working around schedules attracts part-time, skilled employees."
3. Standardize equipment. To minimize training and "employee envy" over who gets the nicer machine, Green trades his machinery at the same time. So the tractors are alike; the combines are the same.
"It simplifies things and reduces mistakes," said Green. When an employee gets in a different tractor the next day, he doesn't have to remember what's different from the day before.
It also helps avoid arguments. "I bought two new grain carts and they had bi-directional, adjustable spouts. My other two grain carts were only a year old, but they had fixed spouts. No one wanted to operate the one-year-old carts. So we traded them in so all four matched," explained Green. "I considered that to be an 'employee benefit' rather than a 'machinery benefit.'"
Another accommodation Green has made is to order adjustable remote mirrors. "Everyone is a different height, so it becomes a safety issue. That's a difference between doing everything yourself and having multiple employees in the same machine," Green noted.
Green is in the process of buying a portable XM satellite radio because one of his employees really wants it. It needs to be portable, because the employee can't count on being in the same tractor when he comes to the farm. Small purchases like that show how much Green goes the extra step to make his employees feel appreciated.
4. Pay for time from farm office to field and provide a vehicle. Green's operation includes 10,000 rented acres and 1,000 acres custom-farmed. "We pay from the time they arrive at the headquarters and we provide a vehicle to the field," said Green "And on the farms that are more than an hour away, we pay double wages." That sounds like a lot but Green added, "It's a small cost compared to not farming that ground."
5. Pay at or above the market in wages. You get what you pay for and Green wants trained labor he can count on and repeat seasonal employees. "You have to pay at least equal to the area factory," he advised. Green also reimburses his employees for the use of their cell-phone during the time they work for him and if they had to drive their own vehicle.
6. Do not micro-manage. Sometimes there is more than one way to do something, even though your way might be better. "I've bitten my lip more than a few times," admitted Green.
7. Act like a coach. "I try to give credit to the employee when things go well and I take the blame for mistakes," Green said. "I don't hold them financially responsible for mistakes. I figure I didn't train them right. I don't want them to be afraid to tell me something went wrong. For example, if they get stuck, I want them to stop and call immediately."
The only thing not to put up with -- Green learned the hard way -- is an employee with a negative attitude. "I can speak from experience," said Green. "One negative employee pulls everyone down. The difference between a positive and negative attitude is huge."
8. Label everything in the cab. Green labels what switch controls which direction. Everything is labelled to remove any confusion.
9. Put everything they need to know in the cab. Green provides a binder when the employee begins the day with instructions on everything he needs to know, such as how to fold and unfold the tillage equipment; a map to get to the field; how to enter the road way; how the end rows run in that field. "This has eliminated a lot of problems," said Green.
10. Make detailed field map clearly visible to tractor/combine driver. When the driver first gets in the cab, he takes the detailed map of the field with every obstacle, waterway width, direction of tillage, etc. and pulls it out to put in the top, plastic cover of the three-ring binder and sets it on the buddy seat next to him.
11. Give bonuses twice a year. Shortly after spring planting and again after fall harvest, Green pays a bonus. "It's partly to reimburse them for their cell phone and partly to show appreciation for those who put in extra hours. We put it in their last paycheck of each season."
12. Have a "Harvest Party" for employees and their families. "Our small town restaurant is normally closed on Sundays, but we rent it out once a year after harvest for all our full- and part-time employees and our truckers who are independent contractors and all their families.
"We take over 1,000 pictures of harvest and have a slide show continuously running during the meal," Green explained. "It gives employees a chance to show their families what they have done. And we give out some awards such as if they set a new record for number of loads per day."
Green also gives each employee a gift of appreciation. "A cap, blanket, drinking glasses, coasters or placemats with our Greenview logo or photos of the farm -- it's something they get to leave the party with to show our appreciation," Green said.
"We have more people looking to work for us. Our current employees want to come back and they have friends who want to work. I usually tell them to let us know their availability and we try to work them in," Green added.
Elizabeth Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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