Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Your Farm Is As Only As Good As Your Help

July 5, 2010

In dealing with non-family employees on a family farm or ranch, here are some points to consider in hiring and keeping the kinds of employees that are reliable and motivated.

- Hire well: This is your key factor. Do this well and the rest of the relationship will fall into place. Do this poorly and your headaches will grow with time.

Look for people who are flexible, listen well and can take directions. People who are set in their ways don’t like working for somebody else. The best employees will take pains to find out what the owners want and will work for them.

Check out their philosophy about the handling of livestock and machinery beforehand. Get to know their goals. Learn about their ability to take responsibility and their attitude about work. You don’t want somebody who is lazy or irresponsible.

It may take some trial and error before you know how well things are going to work out. In farm situations, even the smallest differences tend to get put under a magnifying glass.

Things go best when people think alike. Owner/operators should know themselves and the things they are particular about so they will know who to hire and who to avoid. This is especially true if a farm owner is a poor communicator and expects the hired person to automatically "know" what he or she wants.

- Involve the spouse: If you are dealing with a couple, get to know the spouse as well. If your hired employee is male, then it is extremely helpful if his wife has a farm background and understands the routine of a farm. If she’s not happy, he’s not happy.

Find out what she wants to do, if anything, on the farm and involve her to the extent you can. Issue a separate check for her contribution.

- Communicate openly: Communication is one of the main keys to working out a good relationship. A lot of problems come up when an owner is unassertive and doesn't communicate feelings. At the same time, the employee may be equally unassertive and not bring up problems or voice his or her complaints.

- Schedule regular meetings: A meeting can be a planned coffee time to talk about the goals for the day or for the week. It gets everybody pointed in the same direction. Everyone should feel free to bring up problems, to suggest improvements or to talk about an easier way of doing things. Good management gets everyone’s ideas out on the table.

Humor is always a good way to make criticisms without being too direct. It keeps the atmosphere relaxed. People can get messages about where improvement is needed without feeling like they are being singled out.

- Don’t be too critical: A temper is a big liability for dealing with hired help. Nobody likes being chewed out. The quickest way to get rid of an employee is to give him a steady diet of criticism and negative comments.

One owner, when he had trouble "selling" an idea to his hired man, would take him to an extension program and let someone else do the teaching. That extra patience paid off and his employee eventually came around to his point of view. The new idea became his idea too.

The things an owner is fussy about, he or she should do himself and delegate the things that need to be done right, not "just" right. If wire needs to be twisted a certain way, the owner should do it rather than micro-managing how it should be done.

One farmer, whose main management philosophy was to delegate responsibilities and then stay out of the way, still ran the combine 90 percent of the time.

- Allow for personal growth: Being allowed to contribute ideas is often a crucial factor on whether employees stay or go. The people you employ need to feel competent and good about themselves. Delegate a complete area of responsibility with lots of latitude for decision-making and the way results are accomplished.

Employees need a chance to be creative and try out their own ideas. See to it that their own "signature" is on a lot of things that happen on a farm and give them ample recognition for their work.

- Have regular time off: One dairyman told me how he works with his employee. "I give him regular hours. He is home for supper. I try to solve all after-hours problems myself or with family help. I don’t impose on his time. He gets every other weekend off. I am faithful with that. He gets a three-week paid vacation in the summer. If he has to miss work for some reason, I don’t deduct a nickel. You might say there is a lot of trust between us."

Another dairyman adjusts the work schedule according to seasonal requirements. Extra time during haying or calving is taken off during the slack season. If there are emergencies, the hired man gladly pitches in, but the owner makes sure that the he is compensated for his time.