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ask-tom-pictureDear Tom:

How do you find and hire a good farm


— Overworked in Grapevine

Dear Overworked,
We are spending a substantial amount of time putting our crew together this year. We normally need five people for two days a week. One worker is continuing on our crew from last year. Applications are up this year, largely because of the Organic Growers School Apprentice Link service through their CRAFT program. Each participating farm prepares a profile and prospective workers fill out a profile as well. OGS provides a matching service for workers interested in our farm. We also connect with workers through the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project local food guide, farm tours, and word-of-mouth from tailgate markets. We have not advertised for workers in the past but I suspect Mountain Xpress would also be a good way to solicit interest.

Most of our workers are college educated and some have had specialized graduate work. One year “stump the entomologist” was an entertaining diversion as crew members brought in bugs to be identified from various parts of the farm by one of our crew with specialized training in bug ID. Many crew members have worked on other farms and most have some sort of outdoor work experience if not farm work. We seek workers who want to be farmers. We find they pay attention well and are willing to accept education as part of their compensation package. In contrast to those applicants that want to experience nature or “hang out on a farm for awhile”, future farmers seem to make the best workers, in our experience.

For ten years or so we have used a formal hiring process in contrast to friends of friends showing up when a vacancy occurs. That process is:

  • Application
  • Reference Check
  • Interview and Farm Tour
  • Offer and Acceptance
  • Employment Agreement
  • Retention Program
  • Evaluation and Continuous Improvement

Our Application is very simple but we find that the existence of an application reduces the number of frivolous inquiries and saves our time. We ask four questions:

  1. What is your education and experience?
  2. What will you do with what you learn on our farm?
  3. Who are your references?
  4. How did you hear about our farm?

Some applicants also include a resume which is helpful. Referrals from OGS come with an applicant profile.

We check references for promising applications with very openended questions on email or by phone. By letting the reference person talk, we often find other information beyond our questions. We say we are looking for an amiable, hard-working person who wants to be a farmer. We ask if they would hire the applicant again. It takes a few minutes for each applicant but is worth the effort in our experience.

Our Interviews are very informal. We ask about farms where the applicant has worked and what they learned at each. We ask for more detail on the dream farm that they want someday. We describe our expectations and ask about their interests in working on our farm. We emphasize that the pay is low compared to their qualifications but that we try to make up for that with education and seconds produce to take home. We wrap up the interview with a farm tour. The questions asked during the tour also provide insight. Probably our answers do as well. We try to imagine this person working with our existing crew members and our family. Even with a part-time crew we see a lot of each other so compatibility is important. Doug Jones with NOFA offers more possible questions in his book for NOFA entitled “Internships in Sustainable Farming: A Handbook for Farmers.”

We do not make an Offer of Employment at the interview but call back in the next few days. That period allows us to consult with each other about impressions from the interview and it also allows the prospective crew member to ponder what they have seen and heard. Can they actually pay the rent with our pay plus other work? Will they like working with these people that they just met for the first time? If all parties are still interested a few days later, we make an offer and they accept.

We have not used a written employment agreement in the past but intend to develop one. Richard Wiswall offers a good model agreement about a page long in his book The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook (Chelsea Green 2009). ATTRA also offers several elements to consider (source: Western SARE). Examples of some possible elements of an employment agreement include:

  • Nature of the work
  • Who will be the trainer
  • Working while you talk
  • Come dressed for the weather
  • Record your hours
  • Housing
  • Grievances

While it is unlikely that either party would take legal action based on this agreement, it clearly states the understandings and ensures that all workers have a similar awareness of farm policies.

A Retention Program sounds fairly official and bureaucratic but on our farm that’s just another way of describing ways to keeping employees happy with their work and working productively. Farm economics are such that we cannot pay very much compared to the qualifications of our typical worker but we can make our workplace pleasant in other ways. CRAFT is very popular with our crew and we pay their fees to participate in monthly farm tours and pot lucks. We do not pay their time at CRAFT meetings but we often organize carpools to help make it a social event. We celebrate birthdays and departures with a few snacks and beverages. We answer questions thoroughly and provide access to the farm library and record keeping system. We share information on other workshops and agricultural training. We try not to work on any one task for more that two hours at a time to avoid tedium. We share decision making (who wants to harvest what today?) We share food of course – often seconds but that’s what we eat – which can exceed the value of their paycheck. Many low cost or free methods exist to help make the work enjoyable. When a grower takes the time to train a worker it’s worth a little more time to help avoid a mid-season departure.

Evaluation and Improvement also sounds fairly formal but we just check in with staff from time to time to be sure their needs are being met and that they are learning what they came to our farm to learn. This conversation often happens when we are working away from the rest of the crew with one of our staff. We keep communications open and often ask for suggestions on how to improve our farm operation and relationship with staff. We always do an exit interview when someone leaves to take advantage of their thoughts after a season or more on our farm. We rarely need to dismiss an employee but we always make clear what the issue is before we take action and provide time for improvement. I hope this process is helpful. Taking the step to hire crew does have a fair amount of overhead in time and expense, but it allows us to be more productive as a farm. Comments are welcome. I’m sure there are many more ideas out there in the WNC organic community.
— Tom

Ask Tom © 2013 Tom Elmore & Organic Growers School

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Tom Elmore

Author: Tom Elmore

Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.

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