How To Handle Human Resource Hurdles

Like other businesses, farm employers have a variety of challenges they must navigate through in terms of human resource management. They typically have to deal with mountains of paperwork, training, employee conflicts, reviews, etc., which are all important components of the human resources department.

Jennifer Blazek
Jennifer Blazek

Recently, the University of Wisconsin-Extension (UWEX) Farm Team conducted a survey of Wisconsin farms. A total of 220 producers from 38 counties completed the survey. Although the majority of farms surveyed were livestock farms, a GenNext researcher who was part of the team, Jennifer Blazek at UWEX, says the top five issues or challenges in the area of human resource management are the same for virtually all farmers, including specialty crop producers.
According to the survey results, the biggest challenges with human resource management are in the following areas: barriers to communication, hiring and recruiting, training employees, dealing with employee conflicts, and the legal aspects of human resource management. Blazek discusses each challenge and what growers can do to mitigate or navigate through problems.

1. Communication Barriers

From the survey responses, communication barriers were deemed the No. 1 challenge. For most farming operations, Latino workers are the primary labor force and, as many do not speak English, that can be a major hurdle, says Blazek.
What can farm employers do to mitigate the problem? One solution is to use a translator to interpret for farm managers. “It is a matter of bringing in someone — a translator — to meet with employees and employers, assist with team meetings, and bring managers and workers together,” she explains. This is not even to go over big issues; it is just for updates and to find out how things are going, etc. It keeps people in contact with each other and gives employees an opportunity to voice any concerns. Even if nothing else, employers should learn about any issues among the employees, and then meet with those people who have specific questions so they have that one-on-one time,” she adds.
“[For employers] even just showing that you are trying to learn and picking up certain words that are used by employees on daily basis goes a long way to mitigate some of the communication barriers,” says Blazek. She adds that it is good to have work schedules, standard operating procedures, and work responsibilities, etc. written in both Spanish and English and also provide an opportunity for oral translation.

2. Hiring And Recruiting Employees

As virtually all growers know, it is difficult to find people to work on farms. It is no secret that working in agriculture is not glamorous and there is still a tremendous amount of disconnect between farm and fork, says Blazek, and depending on where the farm is located, advertising in the paper generally isn’t the best resource.
“With [hiring] Latino workers, it is best to talk with your [current] workers or talk to neighboring farms and get the word out through the grapevine,” she explains. “Plus, growers now have social media available to them. It is just finding what fits for your operation. The goal is to find people who are motivated and passionate about working on a farm.”
One place to find workers who are passionate about farming is through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms or WWOOF USA. According to Blazek, this organization can link farms with various university ag programs and help growers find interns interested in working on the farm. For more information, visit wwoofusa.org. She acknowledges this is a short-term solution, but adds that every little bit helps.

3. Training Employees

Time often is a barrier where training is concerned. During the growing season when workers are needed to pick and harvest or pack CSA boxes, it is difficult to squeeze in training sessions, too, she says.
As mitigating this problem is a little more challenging, Blazek suggests contacting the local Extension agent to find out if there are workshops or ways growers can work together with Extension to provide training in areas such as food safety, harvesting techniques, farm safety, etc. Plus, other resources may be able to help with training, including MOSES (Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, mosesorganic.org) in the Midwest and ATTRA (attra.ncat.org), the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. “It is a matter of finding what fits on your farm without recreating the wheel,” she adds.

4. Dealing With Employee Conflicts

Blazek says this challenge can be anything from handling a couple of strong personalities who are not getting along to burned-out workers. Mitigating this problem can be difficult because it goes back to the issue of hiring workers. “It is hard labor and you are going to have employees burn out,” she explains. “The goal is to learn how to keep employees motivated and happy.”
Keeping workers informed is one way to keep them motivated, she explains. “For example, let’s say you have a CSA and you go to markets and hear positive feedback from customers about your produce. Bring that feedback back to your employees. Providing workers with that feedback will motivate them and they will want to do a good job. By keeping them informed, it will make them take pride in their work and give them a reason to be passionate about what they are doing.”
Another way to motivate workers is to have an end-of-the-season picnic essentially to reward employees for their hard work as well as a way to say “thank you” and end things on a high note.

5. Legal Aspects Of Human Resource Management

Many rules and federal guidelines must be followed, and often it is just a matter of finding the information you need, explains Blazek. With the help of Cooperative Extension and attending pertinent workshops, growers can learn about what paperwork needs to be kept, what needs to be submitted to the government, and other human resources payroll tasks, etc.
Blazek stresses that this is especially important to small-scale farmers. Large farms usually have a system in place, but small producers may be expanding and hiring outside workers for harvest while the family handles the bulk of production. For these growers, they will need to get outside labor and know how to manage these people. Oftentimes, this may require finding a local specialist, which may be a lawyer or a farmworker legal action group, she concludes. For more information, click here.

In addition to Blazek, the research team includes Ken Barnett, Extension educator for University of Wisconsin-Madison; Trisha Wagner, agriculture agent for Jackson County, University of Wisconsin-Extension; and Jenny Vanderlin, assistant director for University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability. All are members of the Human Resource Management Workgroup, FARM Team, University of Wisconsin-Extension.

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