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Communication is key to keeping good workers

Almost every farmer has had to deal with the farm labor issue. As the labor supply gets tighter and tighter, finding good workers and getting good employees to come back every year will become even more important, whether the workforce is needed for two weeks or 10 months.

The average farm worker makes an average $12,500 annually, and many don’t qualify for public assistance programs, according to the National Council of Agricultural Employers. Federal cutbacks are threatening the few programs named in the 2002 Farm Bill that do benefit farm laborers.

The council is working to include programs in the 2007 Farm Bill that would train farm workers and provide housing and transportation. But many growers have already had trouble finding workers to harvest their crops, and the situation could get worse before it gets better.

Farmers can take a few simple steps to have a happy and productive workforce and keep good workers coming back every year. And according to more than 35 years of research by Bill Brown, an industry consultant and former professor, many farmers may already use these techniques.

“Farm supervisors are typically seen as caring,” Brown said. “The farm people are generally a notch above the supervisors in other industries.”

He’s conducted surveys of agricultural employees throughout the country and has seen up close what makes a good manager.

“It’s a fascinating look at what makes a company great.”

Listen

Growers are typically an individual breed and don’t like to be told what to do. But some workers have been in agriculture just as long and may have a better way to do a task.

“In many cases they’ll have a solution to a problem and the employer won’t listen,” Brown said. “I’m a farmer also and I’m inclined the same way.”

He said he could point to more than 20 instances he’s seen in his career where listening to a worker resulted in saving money. Those are examples of supervisors who didn’t ignore a great idea just because it came from an employee.

Get to Know Workers

The best thing an employee can say about his or her boss is “He cared about me.” It’s not an easy task finding out a worker’s background or training, but understanding employees will help both sides relate to each other.

“It’s the fact that they are people and not just a piece of labor,” Brown said. But, he added, “I don’t know how you can teach managers to care about people.”

Family is important to many agriculture workers and is an easy place to start getting to know employees.

Practice Self-Control

A common statement that Brown hears from agricultural employees is: “He’s a good boss but he has a bad temper.” It’s not an indictment against farm owners or supervisors because Brown has found that 75 percent of the time employees rank their supervisors as “excellent or higher” in the surveys. But the worst can come out when a problem comes up.

“If bosses could look in the mirror and see themselves how their workers see them, I think they’d be surprised,” Brown said.

That’s not necessarily a problem with the employer, it simply stems from the fact that supervisors usually don’t see a problem until it’s too late, and that’s when they’re most likely to lose their tempers. Supervisors also may not have been trained to deal with problems or haven’t been told what the problem is.

At worst, only 15 percent to 20 percent of agricultural supervisors are rated as poor, a statistic that is much lower than other industries. It’s a reflection of farmers and farm supervisors who listen to and care about their employees and don’t lose their tempers, Brown said.

“If they’re not happy, they won’t come back.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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