Help! When and how to hire it.
Jim Crawford and Mike Brownback, with nearly 70 years of farming between them, discuss the necessity of hiring help right from the start and how becoming (or not becoming) an employer affects your entire operation.

By Amanda Kimble-Evans

Division of Labor

Division of labor is highly variable from farm to farm and each employer has to figure out what will be most efficient for his or her specific operation. Following is how the Crawfords and the Brownbacks divide their labor pools:

Jim and Moie Crawford

High school kids:
• Hired to pick beans or peas
• Paid piece work at $7.50/bushel
• Good way to vet potential crew members

Local adults:
• Hired for processing and packing
• Part-time seasonal employees, usually women between 40 and 70, and retired
• Paid per hour at $8/hr with performance bonuses

Immigrant workers:
• Hired for field work
• Full-time seasonal employees housed on the farm
• Paid per hour at $8/hr plus free board (which comes out to approximately $8.50/hr in total)

Apprentices, usually exploring organic agriculture as a vocation:
• Hired for variety of tasks
• Full-time seasonal employees housed on farm, usually recent college grads or farm grads
• Paid a stipend of $800/month
• These are the mainstays. They're motivated and educated and the Crawfords delegate management tasks to them.

Mike and Terra Brownback

Office help:
• 1 part-time person
• Paid hourly

Field help:
• 10 immigrant workers (for 65 acres)
• Full-time seasonal
• Paid primarily piece work to encourage speed but have exceptions for produce that will be graded, like grapes.

Tractor driver:
• Full-time seasonal
• Paid hourly

Packing shed help:
• Part and full-time seasonal employees, usually single women in their 20s
• Paid hourly
• This pool usually leaves the farm to go back to school near the end of August which is always a shock to the system.

• Packing shed manager and greenhouse manager
• Paid hourly with benefits
• These employees ensure labor efficiency since Mike and Terra can only manage so much on their own. "To be profitable, labor costs shouldn't exceed 33 percent of gross sales," Mike says. He believes if you're not managing that labor and making sure it's as efficient as possible, the profitability of your farm goes down.


Farm labor focus of ag advisor training grant

Richard Stup of Penn State University will be developing labor management expertise among agricultural advisors thanks to a SARE grant recently awarded.

Summary of project:

Labor is often a farm’s largest production cost, yet many extension staff are not knowledgeable about labor management issues, especially as they affect small- and medium-sized farms. The project manager will offer training in recruitment, cross-cultural communications, performance, leadership, supervisions, and the retention of seasonal and year-round workers.

Of the 200 educators who participate, 100 will report increased confidence in supporting labor topics, 35 will publish labor-related articles in a newsletter or other media, 20 will hold local meetings focused on labor issues, and 10 will consult intensively with a least two farmers to develop their labor practices.

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 most widely accepted figure is 33% to stay profitable, but Jim says he spends an average of 55% of his sales on labor per year.

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 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 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 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, " teach someone how to do it properly."

"If you want something done 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.

The details

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 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: 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.

Unemployment: 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."

Workers' compensation: 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," 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.