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Factors affecting human resource challenges on Wisconsin farms

Factors affecting human resource challenges on Wisconsin farms
More than 76,000 people are employeed on Wisconsin farms

By Ken Barnett

More than 76,400 people make their living each year as employees on Wisconsin farms. Their educational background and other skills and characteristics vary widely. Both employees and farmers want to be informed about how farm labor is recruited and what their most valuable characteristics are. 

Farms with written standard operating procedures and written employee handbooks consistently reported more human resource management challenges.

To assist them, the University of Wisconsin-Extension FARM Team conducted a survey of Wisconsin farms. County agriculture agents submitted the contact information for 417 farms from 38 counties around the state. Some agents sent the survey directly to producers in their county or included the survey in a newsletter. There was also an on-line option for completing the survey. A total of 220 producers from 38 counties completed the survey. The survey was conducted from late January to mid-April 2013.

Last year, the members of the human resource group of the University of Wisconsin-Extension FARM Team published three papers on the results of a farm human resource survey we conducted from late January to mid-April 2013. These papers covered the topics of farm employee characteristics, wages and benefits, and human resource characteristics and challenges for Wisconsin farms.

During the winter and spring of 2014, several presentations were made to various audiences on the results of this survey. There were several questions that were asked that we could not answer at that time. Since then, further statistical analysis of the survey data was performed and we can now answer these questions.

There were four categories of questions asked. They ranged from wages and bonuses, to what challenges did farms with written standard operating procedures and handbooks have, to what employee meetings did larger farms have and to how the number of immigrant employees affects communication challenges.

Wages and bonuses
Table 1 helps to explain the relationship between wages for inexperienced and experienced workers and bonuses. Thirty-six percent of the farms in the survey offered bonuses and 64% did not.

The data doesn't suggest a systematic difference in wages on farms that offer bonuses versus farms that don't. None of the differences are statistically significant.

Farms with written SOPs
Farms with written standard operating procedures and written employee handbooks consistently reported more human resource management challenges. One hypothesis would be that farms that have bigger HRM problems have greater incentives to develop written handbooks and SOPs.

Forty-three percent of the farms in the survey had written SOPs and 57% did not. All of the farms did have challenges regardless of whether or not they had written SOPs. For those with written SOPs, the observed differences in motivation and communication challenges are significant at the 5% level

Thirty-one percent of the farms in the survey had written handbooks and 69% did not. All of the farms did have challenges regardless of whether or not they had written handbooks. The observed difference for those farms with a written employee handbook in recruitment challenges is significant at the 10% level and for motivation at the 1% level compared to the farms without written handbooks.

To get at farm size, we totaled the number of cows (dry and milking cows + heifers + beef cows) and the total number of acres (acres supporting livestock + acres for cash cropping) the respondents reported.  Farms surveyed with 1,149 to 1,527 cows and 1,334 to 1,661 acres in the survey, were more likely to have a written employee handbook, written SOPs, do regular performance reviews, and have regular farm meetings involving employees than farms surveyed with 547 to 590 cows and 617 to 731 acres.

Farm size
To get at farm size, we totaled the number of cows (dry and milking cows plus heifers and beef cows) and the total number of acres (acres supporting livestock plus acres for cash cropping) the respondents reported.  Farms surveyed with 1,149 to 1,527 cows and 1,334 to 1,661 acres in the survey, were more likely to have a written employee handbook, written SOPs, do regular performance reviews, and have regular farm meetings involving employees than farms surveyed with 547 to 590 cows and 617 to 731 acres.

For the "larger" farms in the survey, the observed differences for having a written employee handbook, written SOPs, having regular performance reviews, and having regular farm meetings involving employees were significant at the 1% level compared to the "smaller" farms.

Immigrant labor         
On farms that had non-family, immigrant labor (54 % of the respondents), communication issues were thought to be a major HRM challenge. This proved to be true. Clearly, communication issues are a bigger challenge for farms employing immigrant labor. Sixty-four percent of the farms employing immigrant labor had communication issues compared to the farms without immigrant labor. The difference is significant at the 1% level.

Fifty-three percent of the farms in the survey employed immigrant labor. One assumption was that the greater the number of immigrant employees, the greater the communication challenges. However, communication challenges don't seem to be greater for farms with a larger number of immigrant workers. There is not a statistically significant difference between the percent of farms with communication problems and a larger number of immigrant employees.

Barnett is emeritus Extension educator for University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability and lead author of this paper. Contributors include Jennifer Blazek, Polk County Extension agriculture agent; Trisha Wagner, Jackson County Extension agriculture agent and Jenny Vanderlin, assistant director for UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability.

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