Another season is beginning and we are considering hiring some help for our market garden. How can we find good workers?
–Overworked in Burnsville
Dear Overworked –
We have used a crew for about 20 years, starting with one person occasionally to a five person crew now. When we started out we used just family labor and that worked fine for a few years until our production got to the point that we had no free time at all. (Please note there is a session on this topic at the Organic Growers School on March 6-7 at UNCA (www.organicgrowersschool.org ).)
The key deciding factor for us is: “Can this staff person generate more income doing what we assign them than we are paying in salary?” At three dollars a pound for tomatoes we can stay ahead of salary costs fairly easily while our crew is harvesting tomatoes. But we also need to factor in all the weeding, sowing, transplanting and other possible crew jobs when deciding when to use outside labor. Other crops are so time-consuming that they can’t cover crew costs so we tend not to grow those crops unless they are a real draw for our stand.
Another reason to use farm help is the importance of getting things done at the right time. We grow a lot of greens so before sun hits the field and after sun sets behind the tree line are prime times for harvest. With a crew, we can harvest in the few hours before sunset. Without crew we would need to either harvest early or in the heat of the day when the produce quality would not meet our standards.
Farm workers also help with repetitive tasks and aging backs. Back in my thirties, I could transplant for a full day without much trouble but in my fifties, that task seems to go better with some help. Six sets of hands can do a day’s worth of transplanting in an hour or so. Even my aging back can still go full tilt for an hour and a half. Having company and conversation helps repetitive tasks go faster for everyone.
We have worked with great crews over the years. Many workers have gone on to launch their own farm operations which is a source of great pride for us. We like nothing better than “graduating” organic farmers. Early on we used an informal word-of-mouth hiring process. Friends of friends would bring their friends, boyfriends, etc. Some of those arrangements did not work out so well for us or for the employees. Since we switched to a more formal hiring process, our workers have been exceptional people and great workers also.
Workers generally find us because of our history of hiring a crew or through the Local Food Guide. So a first step in finding crew is to be listed there. The Organic Growers School has an apprentice/farmer matching service that is helpful. Many growers send a notice out on the ASAP classifieds or through CFSA. Prospective workers also advertise that way. ATTRA and WWOOF are other national or worldwide sources of referrals.
When someone expresses interest in farm work, we send an employment application. Less serious applicants often do not respond. The next step is a farm tour and interview with both Karen and me. We point out that working for us is a “real job” in contrast to “hanging out” on an organic farm. We explain our low pay in the context of the economic realities of farming, but point out the chance to learn farming and to take home organic produce for their table. Most of our staff are mainly interested in education. Even our simple hiring process helps select for attentive folks that can work independently and who will contribute to the community some day by growing organic food on their own.
Pay structures vary from farm to farm. We pay an hourly wage with withholdings according to state and federal rules. That paperwork does add some overhead to our operation but we build that cost into the cost of labor when we decide which tasks are suitable for our crew. Other farms pay a monthly stipend plus room and board. Others use volunteers or worker shares with their CSA.
I hope this gets you started. More detail will be available at the Organic Growers School including perspectives from a variety of farmers on this topic (Session 2F on Sunday, March 7.) Thanks for your inquiry.
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.