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Growers can’t afford to postpone lining up the pool of employees they’ll need later in the season

Stan Moore

Stan Moore

“Workers are not going to show up at your door anymore like they used to, and that’s the case everywhere, not just here in the Midwest,” said Stan Moore, Michigan State University Extension dairy and human resource educator and expert in labor management. “Today, it really is about networking year-round and knowing where those workers are and that you have them on the schedule for the coming year.”

For a variety of reasons, finding employees, especially immigrant labor, is becoming more difficult, said Melissa R. O’Rourke, a farm and agribusiness management specialist and attorney with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

“Growers need a long-term strategic plan for how they are going to find, retain and replace employees. If you don’t have a plan and don’t think about it until just before harvest, you’re going to have fruit rotting in your orchard. Nobody wants that.”

Moore and O’Rourke provided the following tips to help growers attract new employees and keep the best workers coming back year after year.

—Tip 1: Find out what employees think. When the workers are at the orchard or vineyard, growers should seek their views.

Melissa R. O’Rourke

Melissa R. O’Rourke

“You might ask them questions like, ‘Do you have any ideas or suggestions about how we could make the harvest more efficient or how we can improve working conditions?’” O’Rourke said. “A lot of owners and managers vastly underestimate how important that is to workers. Everybody wants to find satisfaction and fulfillment in what they do day in and day out, and when owners and managers ask for that input, it really goes a long way toward helping those workers feel connected and invested in your operation.”

As an added plus, worker recommendations may well turn out to enhance the operation.

—Tip 2: Stay in contact with employees all year long.

“Who do you think workers are going to put as a priority when it comes time to harvest the fruit: the one who doesn’t talk to them for 10 months and then expects them to show up, or the one who puts forth that extra effort to have contact with them at other times of the year and form a relationship with them?” asked Moore.

That might mean putting together an employee newsletter or even just an occasional email to tell workers what’s going on at the orchard or vineyard while they’re away.

—Tip 3: Besides a competitive base wage, consider performance-based bonuses. Competitive wages and bonuses are especially important now that the nation’s unemployment rate is low, O’Rourke said.

Before instituting bonuses, however, growers should first figure out how they will keep track of each employee’s performance, so workers clearly understand the terms of the bonuses and deem their ultimate distribution as fair.

—Tip 4: Add nonmonetary incentives.

“As an employer, what do you offer in terms of refreshments and breaks, which are particularly important in outdoor conditions? Are you supplying clothing, such as hats, shirts and gloves, to employees? If there are safety issues, are you making sure that you are providing safe working conditions?” O’Rourke asked.

These are all incentives that might give your operation an edge. Another might be an orchard’s tree architecture, such as dwarf apple trees that don’t require as much ladder climbing or cherry fruiting walls that ease picking.

She also suggested offering educational opportunities that workers might find beneficial, such as a lunchtime talk by someone from the local extension service or pruning training.

—Tip 5: Create an employee-friendly schedule.

Employees like to have structure in the schedule so they know their hours, days off and whether there’s flexibility to accommodate personal needs, O’Rourke said.

—Tip 6: Extend the season.

If the grower needs workers at other times of the year, perhaps for pruning or planting, there may be an opportunity to offer workers a longer season.

In addition, growers of different crops might be able to work out an arrangement to share employees, Moore said.

For example, the owner of an apple orchard and the owner of a vineyard may each need workers for six weeks but at slightly different times of the year, so by joining forces, they may be able to offer workers a 12-week season.

“We do have a few growers in northern Michigan who are trying to cooperate with labor. It doesn’t always work out perfectly — a huge grape yield may overlap with the beginning of the apple harvest or vice versa — but that kind of long-season stability can be a very attractive to workers,” he said.

Moore adds that each farm should have its own I-9s for the employees.

—Tip 7: Write job descriptions.

Writing a job description forces the grower to focus on what he or she wants, according to Moore.

“Unless you really think about what it is you want this person to do and what it’s going to take to be successful in that position, then you’re not going to be able to do a good job of selecting a candidate.”

Growers should concentrate on how they envision the position helping the business, then spell out the competencies and qualifications desired.

A good job description can also be a marketing tool: the job description, along with a summary of the monetary and nonmonetary incentives, and possibly a few quotes from some current employees about why they return year after year, can be used to advertise the job to potential workers.

—Tip 8: Build on word-of-mouth advertising.

Current employees remain one of the best ways to spread the word about job opportunities on the farm.

Besides encouraging current employees to spread the word, growers should also arm them with printed or electronic job descriptions, as well as a list of benefits of working there.

—Tip 9: Look more broadly for potential employees.

While the migrant labor force is central to farm operations, other options exist. O’Rourke recommended making contacts with such groups as 4H and FFA, or approaching a local high school agricultural program or perhaps a technical college or institute that runs an agricultural program.

“These are places you can find people who want to learn about fruit growing and fruit production, and who might be interested in working in your vineyard or tree fruit orchard to learn something about that process,” she said.

Moore also said growers should meet with their local workforce development offices that try to connect employers and potential employees.

—Tip 10: Prepare for the interview process.

Once applicants arrive for an interview, owners and managers should have questions ready.

“From some research that we’ve done, we have found that good employees want a good interview, and they would like employers to take that seriously.

So if you’re really going to sell your business to a good candidate — and not just your average person off the street — then you have to think through how you’re going to conduct that 30- to 60-minute interview,” Moore said.

Longtime employees can also participate by asking the applicant questions, or afterward by assisting in the rating process.

All in all, Moore and O’Rourke emphasize that growers must make hiring a priority.

“We need to get away from ‘just-in-time’ hiring, waiting for the position to become open and then scrambling to try to fill it,” Moore said. “Those growers with the most success at hiring see it as a continual process: They’re always looking for the next worker.” •

-by Leslie Mertz, Ph.D., a freelance writer based in Gaylord, Michigan.