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Published March 21, 2013, 11:10 AM

Seminars help farmers better manage on-farm employees

Fourteen farmers attended a first-of-its-kind set of seminars in North Dakota on agriculture employment management. The seminars, held in Jamestown, were led by extension service staff in three states and focused on the general issues that affect agriculture — hiring, retaining, motivating and evaluating employees.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — As livestock and other farms get fewer and larger, farm owners often must attract and retain qualified farm help.

Fourteen farmers attended a first-of-its-kind set of seminars in North Dakota on agriculture employment management. The seminars, held in Jamestown, were led by extension service staff in three states and focused on the general issues that affect agriculture — hiring, retaining, motivating and evaluating employees. The sessions were focused primarily on farms that employ 10 employees or more.

The series started with a dairy clientele, but the people in Jamestown represented various kinds of farms — ranging from a seed cleaning company to beef feedlot and grain operation, as well as dairies. The workshop promised some confidentiality so participants would speak freely about their challenges and solutions.

Tracey Renelt, a South Dakota State University Extension Service dairy specialist in Watertown, counseled the group about the value and technique of writing a proper job description, how to decide whether to hire the first person who walks through the door, among other important factors.

Multi-state effort

J.W. Schroeder, North Dakota State University extension dairy specialist from Fargo, said the workshop is a joint effort of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota Extension Service officials.

A similar set of four weekly meetings started in January in Flandreau, S.D. A Minnesota series is expected, but the scheduling hasn’t been set, Schroeder said.

The presenters are involved with the I-29 Dairy Consortium, an informal gathering of extension service dairy specialists in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa. The group started eight years ago and has been working on cross-border education to support dairy development. About three years ago, the consortium identified training and retaining employees as one of the biggest challenges.

“The names change, the faces change, the responsibilities change, but the personalities are all the same when it comes right down to it,” Schroeder said of employee management issues, across farm types and in different businesses. In dairy and agriculture in general, operations must attract people who are interested in working in a more rigorous outdoor environment, and involve specialized mechanical or animal skills.

“Unfortunately, they don’t have a labor ‘commodity group’ they can turn to,” Schroeder said. “You want to learn more about wheat and dairy, you turn to the commodity groups and get information. How do we do that with employees?”

No ag labor advocates

Larger business organizations have human relations departments that provide training for management, or go somewhere else to get their training,” Schroeder said. “North Dakota is particularly unique because of pressures from the oil patch.”

Some questions in the first day had to do with when Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules apply. If there are non-family members and 10 or more employees involved, another set of rules apply.

“Most of our larger operations are aware of that, but they had to find out about it on their own,” Schroeder said. “We have people who are aspiring to expand, but need to know more about the roles and responsibility of managing employees.”

Some of the participants declined to be identified by name, but some were open about the challenges they face.

“We do train virtually everybody,” said Kent Swenson, owner of Dusty Willow Dairy LLP, who attended the seminar with his wife, Laurel. The farm milks about 800 cows and has 15 employees, about half of whom are local and half guest workers from other countries.

“Unless they have experience in a dairy farm — a modern dairy farm — they’re going to need training. We just hope that when we train them, and they enjoy the job, that they stay with us. And for the most part they do.”

Laurel Swenson described her surprise that she had advertised for dairy and farm help in numerous publications from Texas to Wyoming at $15.25 an hour, with housing included, and had received no phone calls.

“Not one call,” she said. Seminar-goers asked each other what they considered the value of free housing, and some said that would amount to about $1.50 an hour, depending on whether utilities are added in.

Some of the workshop topics involved how to work with employees of different cultures, including Hispanic employees — either Spanish-speaking Americans, or guest workers from a different country. Some of the discussions involved how to manage, review and reward performance.

Most employers of Hispanic workers, for example, recognize their workers for strong family ties, but language barriers can be stumbling blocks. Sometimes cultural differences go beyond the words to communication styles.

Funding for the project was through the North Central Center Risk Management Education Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. For information, contact Schroeder at jw.schroeder@ndsu.edu, or 701-231-7663.

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