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 of diversity.
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 planning.
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," he recalls.
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 sales."
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
Mix and match the type of employee to the type of tasks you have
to work out a cost-efficient labor arrangement that suits your operation.
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 Crawford.
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
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 labor pool.)
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," relates Mike.
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 get done."
"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 retention.
Wages: Each 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
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
Housing: Again, 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.
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,"
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
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," explains Jim.
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 sanity.