Effective farm staff management can make all the difference. A long-time organic farmworker named Jessica told me, “When you are the boss there is not much incentive to change.” I’d like to prove that there is great incentive to improve management. Poor management hurts everyone — it makes farms less productive, and it can make employees miserable. It’s also very difficult to address the problem.
Workers don’t have any power in the relationship. They fear bringing up conflict for fear of losing a good recommendation in the future or the chance for a promotion. There is typically no structure in place for employees to contribute ideas about how they are being managed.
Drawn from interviews with organic farmworkers from around the country and my own experiences on multiple farms, here are some thoughts about managing farmworkers from their perspective (some names in this article have been changed).
A lot of the workers I talked to expressed great appreciation for the ways that farmers empowered them in their jobs. The best bosses assume their workers are capable of learning and performing tasks, even contributing new insight into the direction of the farm.
A farmworker from Colorado named Steven Kluck told me about his boss Andre Houssney who is a great example of empowering workers. Houssney demonstrates the constant of all the good experiences my friends and I have had at work. He simply asks for ideas. When Kluck shares ideas that aren’t that great, Houssney doesn’t shoot them down right away. Instead, he “builds on them or redirects them toward something better.” In two seasons, Kluck went from being a part-time volunteer intern to farm manager and “more of a business partner, helping to establish a brand new CSA program.”
Big changes can happen when farmers build on the potential and direct the passion of their workers.
I’m not an experienced builder, but last year I helped construct a greenhouse with my boss, Danny Blank, at 12 Seasons Farm in Fort Myers, Florida. He regularly asked me for input, and we used several of my ideas on the project. The project helped us build on my abilities and gave us both confidence that I could build a large chicken coop on my own. The hens added another revenue stream to the farm that he didn’t have time to start on his own.
If he had just told me when and where and how to do everything on the greenhouse project, neither of us would have known what I could do. He created a healthy work environment by consistently asking me questions about how we should do things. Blank also asked for ideas for intercropping in his orchard.
When you compare our experience and knowledge, it was unlikely that I would figure out a solution to a problem he’d been thinking about for years. He didn’t get offended if I suggested something obvious that clearly wouldn’t work.
Most workers need a manager’s assistance to get to the point where they can actually contribute. Managers should expect new workers to suggest dumb ideas, but should encourage their suggestions anyway. When farmers teach their systems and the restrictions of their climate, their workers are better suited to help improve functions on the farm. The best employers cultivate a safe environment for ideas and build on them. Bosses that empower workers trust and acknowledge workers’ ability to see something they might have missed.
Martin Price, the founding CEO of ECHO, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing hunger through sustainable agriculture, shared with me that one of the biggest lessons of his 30 years of management is to sometimes “allow staff to do things differently than you’d prefer. You don’t have time to do all the thinking anyway. The only way for an employee to learn and become confident in making decisions is to have the freedom to make them.” Fresh eyes can contribute in unpredictable ways, but it might take some time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, micromanagement disempowers workers and limits productivity. Good training and micromanagement each have their own assumptions.
Good training assumes that the worker will be able to understand the task and perform it well. Micromanagement assumes that the worker doesn’t and can’t understand the task. Micromanagement is a pattern. Good management takes effort. A good manager can give precise instructions, but will trust that the worker will understand the instructions. When there is a power differential in a relationship, the assumptions of the powerful can be reflected in the powerless — a self-fulfilling prophesy. A boss’ assumption that a worker is incapable of basic tasks can negatively affect the way that a worker performs. For example, Pete said he was washing out some trays, and his boss kept looking over his shoulder. He became nervous and inevitably made a stupid mistake. The same thing happened to him while performing other tasks, too. He said, “It sounds like a terrible excuse to say, ‘I didn’t drop any apples until you walked up,’” but the environment of intimidation that micromanagement creates can actually cause workers to make mistakes. Workers can become so focused on the boss’ eyes on them that they lose focus on what their hands are doing.
Unmet expectations are a major source of conflict between workers and managers. Clearly stated expectations before employment begins can prevent a lot of frustration. This is particularly important regarding responsibilities, pay and hours. This can be most important for first-timers who might have romantic ideas about farm work. There are important distinctions between jobs and internships/ apprenticeships.
I asked what workers expect out of internships, and all said things like “education is one of, if not the main goal of the position.” In contrast, another friend worked at a farm that had apprentices. The apprentices quickly became discontented because nothing distinguished them from normal employees. There was no special training; they just got paid less. Expect conflict when the season’s experience does not match up with the intern’s expectations for this important distinction. There are some wonderful internships that jump-start the knowledge and experience of young farmers, but there are also “internships” that are illegally cheap labor. Farmers should be careful to only call a job an “internship” when they provide intentional, valuable educational opportunities. Interns do hourly wage calculations all the time in the field, and if the education portion is lacking, your employees will have a lot to grumble about as they work. As one worker put it, she thought a lot about getting paid “the equivalent of $2 an hour while doing
10 hours of weeding.”
Farm Staff: Wages
Wages are a complicated issue, but they have to be addressed. There are many great resources online to guide farmers through state and federal laws, but farmers don’t often follow the law to the letter. Farm interns are frequently content with their wages anyway. Jessica, also quoted above, said, “The hourly wages I’ve gotten have been fair because I know the farms are small, struggling businesses and are giving what they can.” Most workers understand the financial challenges that farmers face. They will sacrifice for the experience, but they won’t stick around unless they are growing. Beyond minimum wage laws, farmers should calculate compensation carefully. Farmers should calculate the value of housing, produce and other benefits in order to respect the workers’ time.
With the rising cost of college and huge student debt, only a certain segment of society is able to work at a rate below minimum wage. Just like in other industries, low-wage internships can widen the achievement gap between the rich and poor. Small stipends can restrict young people from working class families from participating in educational internships.
Organic farmers should consider the way that their compensation shapes the future makeup of the organic farming community.
Expectations about hours are very important, particularly for stipended workers. One worker who was new to farming said she “underestimated how little personal time I would have with a farm schedule.” Another said that bosses are “vague about time commitments and time off,” and their “employees feel guilty when they take time off during the busy times of the year.”
Understanding workers’ needs for hours and time off can help farmers hold on to good workers. A worker named John was at a farm that had several employees, but each employee only worked three days a week. As soon as the other employees found full-time work elsewhere, they would quit. The farm had new employees every couple weeks. It took up a lot of the boss’ time to advertise an opening, interview several people and train a new employee.
Meanwhile, none of the employees had enough hours to make a living wage. The financial incentive to keep good workers is cumulative. The longer you keep someone the more they understand the vision for your farm and the more their work is worth to your farm. This also promotes a stable community for you and your workers and rewards the hard work of empowering workers.
Communication is Key
“I heard from the boss’ wife that a co-worker had mentioned something about my not working fast enough,” remembered Jessica. She also said, “I had a boss bring up a past poor performance several weeks after the fact to demonstrate that I was not meeting expectations, but never mentioned it at the time so I didn’t know to correct it.”
Workers shouldn’t mind being confronted when they don’t meet expectations, but the conflict should be communicated clearly, promptly and respectfully. Many workers noted bosses who were either passive-aggressive or abusive. A worker can’t give constructive criticism about how an operation is managed when a boss emotionally overreacts or never communicates unmet expectations.
Unresolved conflict can kill workers’ motivation. For daily communication, it is important to match training with expectations.
Of three bosses I had, one gave very limited instructions but wanted very specific outcomes. Another gave limited instructions but had loose expectations for how things were done. The last gave thorough instructions when he wanted things done a particular way. Can you guess which two out of three jobs I enjoyed?
If you give little instruction, especially to new employees, don’t expect the work to be what you pictured. If you want a specific result or process, give specific instructions. Explanations have to match expectations. It takes a lot of time to learn what a boss wants. Don’t play “Guess What’s In My Head.”
Clear authority structures help eliminate systems that contribute to bad communication. It is very difficult to work at farms with more than one boss — particularly on family farms. At one farm, a boss would send me on a task, and then the other one would stop me half way through and send me in the opposite direction. Then the first boss would yell at me for not doing what he had told me to do, saying, “I told you to do something, don’t listen to him.” It never became clear to me who was in charge. Being under undefined management puts stress on workers that they don’t deserve.
Workers should never have to discern which of their bosses to obey.
When I’m asked if I like my work, I answer that I love farming, but it largely depends on the manager whether I like a specific job. Good management makes farming life-giving, rewarding and profitable for both the farmer and the workers. Farmers that work to empower their workers, have clear expectations, understand the expectations of their workers and communicate well on a daily basis create wonderful environments for workers.
Farmers should think of management not as another task, but as another tool for cultivating productive farms and healthy communities.