Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Farming At The Next Level: Managing People

August 7, 2006

Non-family employees in family farming come at a premium. There are so many ways to earn a living in today's economy that finding employees for farm work is difficult. Finding, training and retaining key non-family farm workers and managers may be a key to preserving one's sanity as the demands of farming increases.

The second step in farm management is often changing from an all out gung ho producer to a manager of people. Farmers who have difficulty supervising and managing employees get stuck in an economic "no-man's" land of farming. It’s more than they can handle to be successful. Over time, this takes a big toll on motivation, family life and physical health.

How good a manager are you? What people skills do you need to have employees stay with you? Here are seven skills you need to master to go to the next level of farming - managing people.

1. Hire well. Their character and ability to communicate well will save a host of supervisory problems later. You want employees who have good judgment, understand the work ethic, take the initiative, have a mind of their own and are adaptable. Pay them well.

2. Spell out the fringe benefits and non-cash benefits. Many employees may not appreciate the total package they are receiving. If a dollar amount is assigned to each benefit, they might not be as quick to compare wages on a farm versus wages in town.

In farming, there are opportunities for abuse or disagreements over the assets of the farm. Talking about these ahead of time can save much grief later. Some ticklish issues include housing and remodeling, lights and utilities, access to the gas tank, a garden spot, land for horses, 4-H projects and personal use of tools and vehicles. You need trust and understanding about the way property is treated and expenses are incurred.

3. Add incentives and profit sharing. Find out their eventual goals in agriculture and help them take steps to get there someday, even if it means losing them. Many "born farmers" who don't have the wherewithal to get into farming or don't want to take the risks involved are naturals when it comes to working for others.

Provide them training and growth opportunities in their areas of interest and responsibility. They need a chance to be creative and solve difficult problems. This may be more important than any other benefit you can provide.

4. Have a clear chain of command. Make sure the employee knows who his or her supervisor is and that major discussions about responsibilities and performance come from the supervisor. Other family members in the business should respect the chain of command and work through the supervisor regarding concerns.

5. Give recognition. Everyone loves a pat on the back and praise for a job well done. Give credit where credit is due. Acknowledge their contribution in front of neighbors, in meetings and when awards are given. Put them in the limelight.

When possible, go as a team to meetings and seminars. This shows respect and it gives an opportunity to discuss key concepts afterward.

The terms "hired man" or "hired help" give the wrong feeling. Calling employees partners, associates, chief mechanic, herdsman or another specific title is better. Delegate authority over an area and let him or her deal with purchases within certain guidelines. Have the sales representatives of their area of responsibility go directly to them.

6. Respectful communications. This will be the main area where your people skills will make the biggest difference. Draw out their best ideas and be willing to be influenced by what you hear. Be a respectful listener. Employees appreciate a genuine give and take relationship about the work.

Have a regular format for communication about the job and coordinating your work. Don't expect them to read your mind. Take the time to train and discuss your expectations. Be clear about the things you are particular about. Moving to this level of farm management is about trust and letting go.

Invite their participation in formal family business meetings. Let them know about the big picture and comment on major decisions you are contemplating. Share your goals. Make them a part of the team.

Control your temper. Be respectful of their dignity. Do not criticize in public. Listen first before giving your forceful opinion. Apologize when you have made a mistake. Bring up problems that bother you instead of letting resentments build. Invite them to talk about how they would like to be supervised.

7. Help the family feel at home. The employee’s family needs their own privacy just like you need yours. Let them remodel, plant grass and personalize their environment. The spouse of the employee needs to feel comfortable with the living circumstances. They need to put down roots. It should be their dog, their flowers, their dog in their flower bed, their children and their discipline of their children.

Don't attempt to supervise or boss the employee's children. Express your concerns directly to the parents and let them work out any changes you'd like to see. Don't automatically side in with your own children if there is a dispute and hard feelings. There are always two sides to a story. If your employee isn't as tactful or patient with your children as you would like, keep them apart. If a natural, respectful relationship develops, so much the better.