April 13, 2006: When Jim and Moie Crawford
rented land in West Virginia in 1972 to start their farm, they
thought they had everything planned out down to the smallest
detail. That was, of course, until they met their new neighbors--a
couple in their 50s who had been married for 30 years and still
ran what some people call a "general farm". They managed
to do a little bit of everything--raising dairy cattle, hogs,
chickens and growing fields of vegetables; the very picture
Jim and Moie, young and excited newlyweds, told them all
about their plans to grow three acres of vegetables on their
rented plot. "They answered us with a question,"
Jim recalls, "'So where's your help going to come from?'
We sputtered and they wisely warned us, 'Be careful. You can
plant so much more than you can take care of.'"
The Crawfords, now more than 30 years married themselves,
followed the neighbors' advice. They hired help, but Jim says
they often needed still more.
Labor, unfortunately, is considered a luxury by most farmers.
And the sage advice the Crawfords received early on is not
something new farmers usually seek out when researching and
Mike Brownback, who started Spiral Path Farm, Loysville,
Pennsylvania, in 1978 with his wife Terra, also hired help
right from the start, but, Mike says, "It was a real
mom-and-pop situation. We had me, my wife, our son and daughter,
a few 'Plain' neighbors and some friends working for us. It
was a pretty laid back arrangement."
In 1997, with the farm (and the workload) expanding exponentially,
the Brownbacks knew they needed more help. Like most farmers
new to the idea of outside labor, they didn't really know
where to start. Lacking an aged neighbor's wisdom but with
a sharp eye for what he and his farm needed, Mike took his
card down to the Mexican store an hour away and put the word
out he was looking for help.
"Within the day we had five employees who had to stay
in our house until we could make other arrangements,"
Making the investment
So if your question is "When should I think about hiring
labor?" Jim Crawford and Mike Brownback -- with nearly
70 years of farming between them -- have an answer: Right
from the start.
||"If it's worth planting and transplanting
and worth weeding, it's worth the cost of labor to follow
through with harvest and sales."
Employees are part of the investment you make in your farm
as a whole. Every step you go through to bring the seed to
market is part of that investment. And as Jim suggests, "If
it's worth planting and transplanting and worth weeding, it's
worth the cost of labor to follow through with harvest and
The fact of the matter is the crops have a point at which
they're going to ripen and you can't just work at your own
pace, Crawford explains. When you build a house and you put
the foundation in and the framing up you're about 50 percent
done with the job. But when you've got seed in the ground
and the manure spread, you're only maybe 10 percent done with
the job. Farming work is back-loaded. While timing is critical
at the front end, it is the time – in hours of harvest,
handling, transporting and marketing – that challenges
growing market farms at the back.
Of course Brownback says if he were starting to grow now,
he would do a business plan to see if hiring help was economically
feasible. Every employer needs to calculate labor into each
enterprise to estimate the real profit potential.
Labor is the biggest expense a farmer will have -- three
times more than the next biggest expense, figures Crawford.
So if your fuel cost $50,000, your labor will cost you $150,000.
"It creates a false economy to not invest in labor,"
says Crawford, "People spend hours trying to get seeds
and fertilizer a bit cheaper. But labor eats up 33-55
percent* of your sales. Spending all that time getting
a few buckets of seeds a couple dollars cheaper is a waste.
Instead, spend that time on figuring out your labor."
The right employee for the job
Labor might be your biggest expense, but it can also be your
most elastic one in terms of how the dollars are allocated.
For example, Crawford says, you can hire eight hourly employees
at $10 per hour, but you have to make sure they're not wasting
any time. On the other hand, you can hire a few high school
kids to pick beans in the summer and pay them per bushel.
You notice right away some pick 1/2 bushel per hour and some
1-1/2 even when their pay is based on how much they pick.
Mix and match the type of employee to the type of tasks you
have to work out a cost-efficient labor arrangement that suits
The Crawfords divide their labor by type of employee and
then allow those employees to negotiate for various jobs which
they keep for the entire season.
"Ten years ago I made up a big chart of tasks and everyone
gets copy. Every process, building or tool has a person dedicated
to it. The benefit is that everyone has a job and they know
what they're supposed to be doing. We also know everything
on the farm is going to be covered by someone," says
Each apprentice at New Morning Farm also has a set of crop
groups for which they will be responsible for the entire season.
Jim believes, "it allows the employees to specialize
so they can perfect their job."
The Brownbacks divide their labor pool by task. They've found
that simpler is better and the arrangement allows them to
manage all farm tasks even when employees leave.
(See box "Division of Labor" in sidebar for more
detail on how the Crawfords and the Brownbacks structure their
Delegate and motivate
"Finish this sentence," Mike says, "If you
want something done right..."
No, the answer in this case isn't "do it yourself"
as you've probably already guessed. The Brownbacks believe
you have to be willing to be a teacher if you're going to
hire employees. If you want something done right, Mike says,
"...you teach someone how to do it properly."
||"If you want something done right...you
teach someone how to do it properly."
"Myself, I'm really stubborn. It took me a long time
to learn how to delegate. But delegating is the secret,”
Mike has found. “It feels really good to finally let
go of a facet of the operation and have confidence that it'll
be done rights. It takes a leap of faith."
But, he stresses, you have to be willing to take the time
and teach someone to drive a tractor or plant a seed. That
initial investment of your time is part of the investment
in employees as a whole. If you hire an employee and then
try to continue to do everything yourself, you're defeating
the purpose of hiring help.
Delegation is the first step. A good manager also knows how
to motivate. How do you motivate? What does it take?
The Brownbacks pay their field workers piece work to inspire
one level of motivation, but as Mike puts it, "Money
is good to a point, but you have to have respect for each
other to really motivate." Setting a good example should
be top priority. "I have to be the first one there in
the morning so the workers respect that I'm dedicated,"
Labor utilization is another key tool. Mike feels hiring
employees means you've taken on the responsibility of guaranteeing
a certain level of work for those employees. "If I take
someone in and I'm going to be an employer, I have an obligation
to provide them with work," Brownback says.
||"When you have labor you are
extracting something from humans. Laborers always feel
like you're asking for too much and owners always feel
they're not given enough. It's a balance."
The hardest challenge for crop farmers who are also employers
is waiting for the window of opportunity where field work
can happen. You're not going to be working in the garden if
it's raining but most vegetable farms are diversified and
there's always plenty to do. "We have to envision along
the way. You have to always be ahead of the plants that are
growing," Mike says, "On a rainy day, we pour concrete
in the barn instead or any number of odd jobs that need to
"When you have labor you are extracting something from
humans,” he reflects. “Laborers always feel like
you're asking for too much and owners always feel they're
not given enough. It's a balance." Keeping that balance
can make a huge difference in employee productiveness and
farmer has to decide what level of wages will give them the
right person for the job without breaking the bank. Both the
Crawfords and the Brownbacks have reached their wage arrangements
over years of tweaking and growing. But they've incorporated
different bonuses and benefits to encourage loyalty.
The Crawfords make sure anyone returning to the farm gets
a raise. "Even if it's only 25 cents, they need to feel
appreciated for their experience," Jim says. They also
offer profit sharing for their employees starting their second
season with the farm and a variety of bonuses calculated differently
depending on type of employee.
The Brownbacks also offer bonuses at the end of the season
and weekly once harvest begins. The weekly bonuses are based
on performance and overall farm sales and are used as one
way of motivating the employees.
housing is highly variable from farm to farm. Some employers
choose to offer on-site housing and include room as part of
the wages. Others help make arrangements for off-farm housing,
and still others leave the housing up to the employees.
The Crawfords housed their first employee in their own home
for a season, but found sharing such close quarters the second
season was a bit of a strain on both them and the employee.
Instead, they moved their worker into an existing on-farm
cabin and eventually built additional cabins and a common
area/summer kitchen to accommodate their growing staff. The
cabins are simple (no electricity or running water), but the
common area and bathrooms have both.
Both the Crawfords and the Brownbacks discovered quickly that
Pennsylvania makes no unemployment arrangements for farm workers,
but say it's 100 percent necessary for an employer of seasonal
ag workers to pay into unemployment.
"We found that some people work for a few weeks and
will still be collecting six months later, so we tell people
they can go on unemployment, but they won't be able to return
to the farm," Jim says. "Instead, we promise them
a monetary gift at the end of the season to help them make
it through the off-season."
"We extend the season as far as realistically possible,"
says Mike, "but layoffs are around December 2-5 and we
expect they will collect unemployment."
Another necessary evil that must be calculated into your labor
budget. "You CANNOT hire people to work for you without
workman's comp," says Mike.
And according to the state of Pennsylvania, workers' compensation
insurance is mandatory for anyone who employs "at least
one employee who could be injured or develop a work-related
disease in this state."
Workers' compensation rules will vary by state, so check
with your local government to find out what your regulations
and restrictions are.
Better too much than not enough
|| "I've had farmers say they've
had problems with drought or with pests or with weeds.
But what I've realized is these are all labor problems--not
enough people to water or scout for pests or run the tractor."
Unfortunately, the results of a lack of labor are not always
immediately obvious. "I've had farmers say they've had
problems with drought or with pests or with weeds. But what
I've realized is these are all labor problems--not enough
people to water or scout for pests or run the tractor,"
If you look closely and honestly at your own operation, you'll
see where you need help and why. As Jim says, "I've been
known to overdo it with help, but almost nothing goes unattended."
Even now, Mike says one of the hardest things for him to
get into his head is that he can't do everything himself.
Luckily, as an employer, he doesn't have much of a choice,
which, Mike says, is better for the farm and better for his