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Hiring smarts

PICK UP ANY RURAL newspaper and you are likely to see a new kind of ad in the employment classifieds. No, not the one marked “General laborer.” Go down a bit. Over a column. Under “Professional.” There it is: “Help wanted: Farm foreman.”

Okay, read on. “Crop farm looking to hire full-time professional who can supervise part-time staff, manage the farm, operate and repair high-tech equipment and perform all other duties related to crop production.”

If you haven't already seen this ad, you will.

Crop farms are getting bigger, more complex and more diversified all the time to achieve production efficiencies and economies of scale. As these farms evolve, time-crunched owners need someone with management smarts and technical skills to double for themselves while they are busy elsewhere.

“Obviously, the trend in farming is to get bigger,” says Jennifer Ricciardi, president of Career Company of America, a nationwide recruiting company. “And once you get too big to do it all yourself, there is the need to hire that additional, what we call ‘key,’ person.”

Knowing where to go and what it takes to find this person is crucial to making an informed hiring decision. And since labor is a major input cost on farms, next to land and machinery, it's an input buying decision that can make or break your bottom line.

Not your hired hand

Unlike the farmhand of the past who did all the physical work around the farm but did not make management decisions, this new breed of employee both works and manages the farm. They supervise laborers. Make business decisions. Operate and repair machinery. Buy crop inputs. Market the crop. In short, they do just about everything the owner can do except own the land.

Take the staff of Iowa farmer Ken Less. Less has two full-time employees who take care of his 11,000-acre corn and soybean operation and two contract workers who raise his finisher hogs. “One of them on the crop side has been with me for 13 years,” Less says. “So he is well integrated into the system. He can do anything for us. He can plant. He can combine. He is a good manger. I'd trust him to do anything.”

An employee like Less's goes by a variety of names: “crop manager,” “farm manager,” “associate,” “key personnel,” or the increasingly popular “farm foreman,” according to Kenneth Webster, co-owner of AgJobsUSA, an agricultural recruitment service. “We hear more talk now about foreman rather than manager, which implies a ‘working’ foreman — a person who is going to be working and in charge,” Webster says.

Three factors have led to their demand. First is farm size. Crop farms are getting bigger. Among FIN readers, the average farm size is 945 acres, compared with 836 acres in 1994. More land requires more labor. And not just general laborers but managers who can supervise and make decisions.

Second, as crop farms grow, they are becoming more diversified so owners can spread their financial risk and decrease their dependence on markets. “It is not unusual for a large farming operation to have corn, soybeans and milo, and then cattle to clean up the residue,” Webster says. “Or they may have a hog- or cattle-feeding operation as a way of marketing their grain. So when you do that, you may have to have a livestock foreman, farming foreman, grain storage foreman or milling foreman. The diversity changes it a lot.”

Finally, the machinery required to run these operations is getting more costly and complex, requiring trained technicians to operate it. Just look inside a tractor or combine today. You'll likely find a laptop computer, a global positioning system, variable rate technology, and in some cases automated guidance systems.

“I hear frequently from farmers that if they buy a $100,000 piece of equipment, they don't want an untrained day laborer out there running it because one little mistake could cost them more in repairs than what they would pay that person for a year,” Webster says.

All of these factors are driving the need for this highly trained management professional.

Do you need one?

The decision to bring on this “key” person is often a matter of farm size. As a general rule of thumb, 2,000 acres is the point at which farmers may start to see labor as a limiting factor and may hold back expansion plans until they can find another person like themselves.

“That's just where I was at,” says Auburn, IL, farmer Garry Niemeyer, who was farming about 2,000 acres at the time he decided to hire, what he calls, an “associate.” Niemeyer had just lost a part-time person to retirement, leaving only himself and another employee to run his value-added crop farm.

“Our operation is 2,100 acres, and no matter how you slice or dice it, you still need three people,” Niemeyer says.

Both of his current employees buy crop inputs, make management decisions, operate and maintain equipment, and market the crop in addition to doing fieldwork.

With the extra labor, Niemeyer has been able to expand his operation by 100 acres. And he plans to pick up even more ground next year when his term as president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association ends and he can be back on the farm full-time.

The 2,000-acre break will vary by farm, depending on the size of the fields and equipment, method of tillage, and the amount of contract work being done, according to Michael Smith, manager and part owner of Agra Placements. He says a simpler way to determine the need for this person is to ask yourself, Are all of my operations getting done and getting done in a timely manner? If they aren't, he says, you probably need the additional layer of help.

Can you justify?

Needing help is one thing. Justifying hiring someone is another. This type of labor isn't cheap.

According to a 2002 salary survey conducted by AgriCareers, an agricultural recruiting firm, the average compensation for a crop manager is currently $38,416, up from $31,666 in 2001. On top of that, 58% of employers surveyed provide housing, 92% provide insurance, 42% provide food, and 8% pay for utilities. Worker's compensation is an additional expense. (See “Keep it legal.”)

To determine whether you can justify these costs, Career Company's Ricciardi recommends you ask your state extension service for a copy of the yearly rate sheet for a custom harvester. Compare the prices with the salary and benefits you would pay an employee to perform the same services, then weigh the advantages of each (see “Need Help?”).

Steps in hiring

If and when you decide to hire, there are basically four steps involved in the process:

  1. Define

    The first step is to define what you want this person to do. Write a description of all the duties to be performed and all the required skills it will take to do those jobs. These may include mechanical, supervisory, computer, buying, marketing and communication skills.

  2. Search

    The next step is to find potential candidates through word of mouth, classified ads, state employment agencies or recruitment firms (see “Recruiters”). All of these methods can work. Each has its pros and cons.

    For example, ads and recruitment firms can reach farther than word of mouth or state employment agencies, but they also can be more expensive. Recruitment firms typically charge 20 to 30% of the new-hire's salary, but some, such as AgJobsUSA, charge a flat fee. However, they also can prescreen candidates, check references and provide interviewing assistance, which can save you time and legwork.

    So what should you do? “If I were in a farmer's place, first I would think about all the people I knew,” offers Dale Pickering, president of Agri-Tech Personnel. “Most farmers know pretty well who is available in their area who would be good enough to work on their farm. Next, I'd advertise locally. If no local qualified candidates can be identified, I would contact a recruitment agency and use their much broader resources.”

  3. Interview

    Once you find candidates that fit your job on paper, it's time to start interviewing. The interview is your chance to determine whether an individual's skills and background fit the responsibilities of the job and whether his or her personality fits the culture of your operation.

    Agra Placements' Smith says employers should look for eight main traits for this type of position: integrity, initiative, leadership, adaptability/flexibility, decisiveness, ambition, organizational skills and problem-solving skills.

    “The trait that should be No. 1 on everyone's list is integrity,” Smith says. “Is this a person we should trust? Why are we putting this high-value equipment in his hands?” You can determine whether a person possesses these traits by observing how he or she acts and reacts to your questions, Smith says.

    One interview format Smith uses to evaluate candidates is called STAR, which stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. “Tell me about the most difficult situation you've had,” Smith explains. “Describe the situation, what was the task you had to complete, the action to take and the result. This is a method farmers can use.”

  4. Verify

    Once you find the best candidate for the job, don't make any offer before doing a background and reference check. This step is key to finding and hiring the right person, according to Eric Hansen, part owner of Hansen Agri-Placement.

Hansen says to contact previous employers and references to verify employment and get details about the person's job performance. “Look for a clean track record and a stable work history,” he says. “If they are changing jobs every year or every other year, especially if they are over 25 years old and have a history of doing this, chances are they will continue to do it throughout their career.”

How to keep them

A story about hiring would not be complete without a few words about how to keep employees. Employee retention is an increasing challenge because the workforce is more mobile than in the past, according to AgJobsUSA's Webster. “It used to be that a person would stay at a job 20 years,” he says. “Today, they don't even consider that.”

One way to reverse this tendency is to offer incentives. These may include housing, utilities, food and insurance if they were not part of the original package. Others could be bonuses based on profit, funds that become theirs based on years of service, or the opportunity to acquire so many acres or head of livestock each year.

Gary Maas, president of AgriCareers, says keeping employees requires that you take care of them, not only with a salary but by making them feel they are part of the operation. “Once you find that top-notch employee, the last thing you want to do is lose him,” Maas says.

According to a recent survey his firm conducted, four factors accounted for 58% of job satisfaction among the 681 ag employees surveyed: achievement, growth, responsibility and recognition.

Maas says there is a natural feeling of achievement that comes with bringing in a crop. And employers can intensify that feeling by having employees benchmark their production next to county numbers.

“Growth is number two,” Maas continues. “People want to be trained. For example, at Purdue University's Top Crop Farmer workshop, good owners have their managers there with them and may have a second layer there, too.”

Responsibility and recognition, the third and fourth factors, have to do with making employees feel they are part of the operation, Maas says.

By paying attention to these factors on their own cropping operations, both Iowa's Less and Illinois' Niemeyer have been successful in keeping the management-level personnel they found for their farms. Less offers this advice for farmers ready to make the same step: “Mostly you just have to be patient. Sometimes it takes a while to get the right person. And I guess just treat them like you'd like to be treated yourself.”

Adds Niemeyer: “Try to make sure everyone enjoys themselves. And treat them equal.”

Need help?

Consider the options

If you need additional labor on your farm, you basically have four ways to get it, according to Jennifer Ricciardi, owner of Career Company of America, a national employee recruitment firm. “There are advantages to all of them,” Ricciardi says. “It is up to each person's individual style.”


One way is to partner with someone experienced and adept at making decisions. The advantages are that you will be ensuring high-quality, long-term labor because this person has a financial stake in the operation's success. The disadvantage is that you will have to sacrifice some management control because both of you are in charge. Ricciardi suggests you first hire this person as an employee for a year to ensure you have compatible working styles.

Permanent full-time employee

This option lets you maintain management control while also having the loyalty and security of full-time labor. “This will be your right-hand person who will give you the time you need to take care of other things or just manage the other half of the work that needs to be done,” Ricciardi says. “You can take a day off if you need to, and you don't have to worry about bringing someone in for a day who might not really understand how the operation works.” The disadvantage is that you will probably have to provide benefits and worker's compensation insurance.

Seasonal labor

Seasonal laborers, under the H2A program, are able to come to the U.S. for up to 10 months out of the year, Ricciardi says. So it may be a good solution if you do not need help year round. What's more, you are not obligated to pay them medical benefits as you might be with a full-time employee. “So you can lower your cost and still find good workers,” she says.

Custom services

Finally, hiring custom work can be more expensive than some of the other options, Ricciardi says. But you don't have to buy equipment or maintain it because the harvester supplies it along with the labor. “You just pick up the phone and contract your work out, and obviously they make sure it gets done. But you have to worry about the weather,” she adds, because you are under their time schedule.


The following ag recruitment companies can help you in your search.

Box 433
Garden City, KS 67846

Agra Placements, Ltd., Kansas
(one of five offices in the Midwest)
603 East Lincoln Blvd.
Hesston, KS 67062

AgriCareers, Inc.
(one of two offices in Iowa)
Highway 92 West
Massena, IA 50853

Agri-Tech Personnel, Inc.
4444 N. Belleview, Suite 209
Kansas City, MO 64116

Career Company of America
Box 155
Lititz, PA 17543

Hansen Agri-Placement
2608 Old Fair Rd.
Box 1172
Grand Island, NE 68802

Keep it legal

Hiring an employee has legal consequences. Consider calling these offices and professionals before you hire.

Federal and state departments of labor

These departments can tell you the legal requirements employers are held to nationally and statewide. These include taxes and insurance you must provide, required postings, questions you can and cannot ask during the interview, and employee identification required. Your county extension service, local job service office, or U.S. Small Business Administration office may also be able to provide this information.


Employers are required to withhold Social Security, Medicare and federal taxes. In addition, they are required to withhold state income taxes and pay federal and state unemployment taxes, depending on wage rate and laws of their state, according to Brenda Bristle, a CPA at Lee & Berner in Montevideo, MN. Contact your local CPA to apply for your tax identification numbers and receive the required forms.

Insurance agent

If your employee wages are above a certain rate, you are required to pay worker's compensation or employer's liability insurance. Rates and levels of insurance required vary by company and by state. For example, Benson & Helgeson Insurance Agency in Montevideo, MN, quotes a rate of $7.22/$100 worth of wages paid annually, plus a $750 minimum premium and $150 expense constant for a total annual minimum cost of $900. “The farming industry is on the upper scale for premiums,” says Leon Benson, Benson & Helgeson president and CEO.


If a claim is filed against you, you will likely need legal representation. Richard Unger, a private attorney in Minnesota, says, “I would certainly advise someone not to just start hiring an employee and wait until something happens.” He claims that, if an employee sues, you can easily spend $5,000 or $10,000 in attorney fees alone. Unger advises employers to prepare a written employment statement that spells out the terms of employment, including wages and benefits.

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