family background/ Ellie is an eighth-generation grower who graduated from Juniata College with a major in community conflict and change, and she now manages her family company’s human resources department and H-2A program. She’s the daughter of Katherine and Mark Rice.
business/R & L Orchard Co.
How did you get your start?
The first home I grew up in was near the orchard I work in, and the landscape of this farm is really foundational for me. It’s part of my internal geography. After college, I was asked to help with bruising inspection during harvest and I got to know the people who work at the company, which was really wonderful.
I’ve always been passionate about Spanish-language advocacy and access. It was very important to me when I joined the company that there’d be someone in upper management who can speak the languages of all the employees.
What were some of your first goals?
I joined the company with counseling and advocacy experience, and I wanted to be a compassionate manager for my co-workers and employees.
That was one of the biggest things for me. I found here, and at a lot of other places, a disconnect between management and other levels of staff. I wanted to be able to make it feel like all employees’ opinions were valuable and they could contribute ideas, and their concerns were taken seriously.
It wasn’t because it wasn’t happening before on the farm — they were some of the things that I made sure I did well. I also really wanted to break down language barriers, by providing access to training opportunities, tapping into their individual skills and working around language issues.
What challenges are you working on?
Of the challenges, language is massive. It’s common in a lot of places where there’s a divide between the Spanish-speaking staff and the English-speaking managers. There’s so much training that I do here because I’m bilingual.
I’ve found that if you don’t have access to resources in the language you speak, you can’t learn. I want my co-workers to be able to pursue the careers they want to achieve. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to find Spanish-language resources. I’ve been working with our local Penn State extension office to advocate for greater access to Spanish speakers.
One example is, right now the pesticide applicator license exams are not offered in Spanish, only in English. So, there are very experienced pesticide applicators who cannot get their license because they can’t take the test. I am working with PSU because I don’t want to see this artificial barrier continue for so many people.
What’s important to you about your job?
In my position, I’ve found compassion and patience are very, very important. You are going to have to listen to your co-workers in this job. Even when they’re talking about something you can’t control in the slightest.
You’ll need to hear from them when they are going through really difficult times. You’ll need to emotionally meet people where they are in their life and understand where they’re coming from in that moment. It’s really important. I’ve also learned to not be afraid to ask for help when working through problems, because there’s so many people and resources to help you in this job. From university extension programs and people from other farms in the industry, you can find the help you need. For me, I’ve found my college coursework in psychology, sociology and mediation to be very valuable, too.
What advice do you have for young growers?
You don’t need to know everything. You absolutely do not need to know everything, even when you have employers wishing you knew everything. It’s just not possible, and that’s OK. Being excited about this work, being interested in this work: that to me is the most valuable thing.
Around here you have a lot of people who are tired, people who are unhappy about being in agriculture, and that’s a really tough thing to be witness to because it’s such an important part of this area’s heritage. Bringing in people who want to be here — genuinely want to be here — is important. If you genuinely want to be in farming, there’s going to be space for you.