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3 tips to successfully hire farm workers

Good help is hard to find - but not impossible.

It's tough to find good help, isn’t it?

I’ve made a lot of mistakes hiring farm workers, from hiring really close friends to not properly interviewing people, to not setting expectations.

But successful hiring is extremely important, especially in something like farming, where a small group of people are doing complicated, stressful work in an outdoor setting.

In our post last week we talked about Navy Seals. Navy Seals trust each other with their lives. That’s the same kind of camaraderie you need in a successful business.

Everybody has to understand the mission they’re trying to achieve, whether it’s planting, chemical application, harvesting, or whatever. If a Navy Seal fails to communicate with precision, the mission may be compromised or worse, death. In farming, poor communication probably won’t kill you but boy, you’ve got big and expensive problems when things don’t run smoothly.

Think about your best planting day, how everything worked perfectly: if you want to be an elite farmer, that should be an average day. And hiring the right people is key to becoming that efficient.

With that, here are three things that help with hiring the right people on the farm.

1) Provide candidates with clear expectations

Farming is a unique job, and before you hire somebody you have to be totally clear about what’s going to happen day to day.

In particular, focus on the absolutely stressful times. If the person isn’t used to working on 4-5 hours of sleep for a week straight, they might not be a good fit. But if you prepare them for “Hell Week” all month, they won’t be caught off guard.

I try to scare people right away, as early on in the interview process as possible. Only the best should even interview with you: try and tell them this is not for the meek. If they want to sit in A/C all day, this isn’t going to work.

Also, if you see someone screwing up their job consistently, to the point where you or someone else has to step in and fill their role, don’t hesitate to set them free of the work entirely. You can’t have cancer floating around your team: remove it as early as possible.

2) Test for motivation 

A little while ago, I was looking for an administrative assistant. I decided to write a status on my personal Facebook about it, along with a couple of videos.

I had 30 or so people interested. I wondered how I should pare them down. Then I thought of an idea for a test.

I’ve read Gary Vaynerchuk’s book Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. The guy’s a genius. So I had the idea to give the 30 applicants a few assignments.

They had to

1. Like Cash Cow Farmer’s Facebook page

2. Read the book

3. Post their top 10 takeaways on the Cash Cow Farmer Facebook page

4. Share those takeaways and get some activity on that post

I gave them five days: if they couldn’t do it in that time, they wouldn’t be a good fit. A lot of people dropped out. But one gal from Brazil had it done in a single day.

(She works for me now.)

You can do something similar. Maybe require your employees to read Unbeatable Mind by Mark Divine and bring 10 key takeaways. Or have them do a Strengthsfinders assessment to get some insight into how they tick.

Or come up with your own test. The point is to weed out the candidates who aren’t good fits as soon as possible and allow the best people to prove themselves to you quickly.

3) Be a fun “servant leader” who follows up constantly

Try to keep your work environment productive and fun. You’ve probably seen those startups that have ping-pong tables and video games all over their place. Think about how Google has all these restaurants on their campus, and a daycare.

(Side note: I actually tried the Google strategy. I hired a live-in housekeeper to prepare my team breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was expensive. It worked in the sense that they liked it (obviously), but the increase in productivity versus the cost wasn’t even close to worth it. In fairness, it’s not a creative environment: it’s a blue collar environment. At Google, you have to elevate your mindset. We’re not solving crazy-huge problems in farming. But at least we tried something!)

On the productive side, continually follow up with your employees who are on the ground.

I’m always asking my guys what we could do better. They offer great suggestions, and I tell them to price it out and let me know if they think the investment is worth it. I try to empower them.

On our farm, with half the machinery of what a farm our size normally uses, we did the same amount of work this past spring. Our team is just amazing.

Everybody takes ownership. One guy’s in charge of the planter, another the sprayer, and so on. They crush their roles, and if they have trouble, they call the manager who gets them going again—a smooth process.

Have some fun! We do something I call the “Machine Gun BBQ”. We have BBQ at the farm every now and then, and we just go out and shoot targets. It’s always a competition, and I have a couple of prizes I know they’ll like.

We have a really good time together.

If you’re always yelling at the guys every time you’re talking to them, it’s not gonna go well. Listening, then suggesting or asking questions to see what they think is the most economical solution is a great strategy.

At the BBQ this last week, the guys barely mentioned something about wanting more hours. I pressed into that, asked exactly what they wanted, and asked our manager if we had enough work to give them.

They designed their own work schedule; I just OK'd it because it made sense for them and the operation. You’d be surprised at how well a system like that works.

Don’t compromise the mission

Your employees have their own goals, but they must help their teammates too in order to make sure they don't compromise the mission.

You, as a leader, must humble yourself and admit that you don’t have all the answers—you can't tell everyone what to do. Empower your team members to take ownership and watch as some of your best decisions and ideas come from team members themselves.

That’s the role of a “servant leader.”

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Penton Agriculture.

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