SLEEPY EYE, Minnesota — Leadership, communication, a second language — these are the kinds of skills that a multi-state hog operation is looking to develop in its work force in order to thrive.
Christensen Farms, based in Sleepy Eye in southern Minnesota, is partnering with Minnesota State University - Mankato on a training program for its workers with the help of a $300,000 grant from the state of Minnesota.
"We want to get everybody to the next level," said Val Johnson, vice president of human resources and administration at Christensen Farms.
The grant is part of $2.2 million in grants announced earlier this month by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development through its Minnesota Jobs Skills Partnership.
Johnson said the educational offerings will be very broad with something for people in every department, from in-office accounting jobs to ground-level workers on Christensen's 44 farms.
One specific need is to help workers from Mexico improve their English. About 25% of the Christensen Farms workers are in the U.S. on a "TN" visa. TN is short for Trade NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement designed to improve trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Those workers at Christensen Farms have at least a two-year degree in a science field, usually animal science. Johnson said that while those workers speak English, it is not their first language and both Christensen Farms and the workers could benefit from improved language skills.
The TN visa allows those workers to be in the U.S. for one to three years. "They are committed to our company," Johnson said, "and they often come back with a renewed visa."
Christensen Farms operates facilities in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and South Dakota. It operates three feed mills, manages about 143,000 sows and markets about 3.6 million hogs per year. It also recently opened a site dedicated to research at St. James, Minnesota. It has more than 850 workers, most of them in Minnesota, with about 175 at the Sleepy Eye headquarters.
But like many U.S. businesses, it is struggling to keep its jobs filled. Christensen Farms has more than 100 openings listed on its website.
"Labor is tight in many industries, particularly in rural areas," Johnson noted. She said that 25 years ago, they were hiring workers with a farm background, but that isn't necessarily the case anymore. And by creating a training program, it hopes to keep the workers it finds.
"Ultimately, we want them to stay in ag," Johnson said.
With that goal in mind, Christensen Farms worked with Minnesota State over several months to develop the grant application.
Now, Christensen Farms is working with the university to develop the curriculum and how the information will be delivered, starting as soon as February and spread out over the next couple of years. There may be a mix of ongoing classes and one-time seminars.
The Christensen Farms headquarters at Sleepy Eye is about 40 miles west of the Mankato campus. Both Christensen Farms and the university are a part of GreenSeam, a nonprofit organization with the goal of making south-central Minnesota an epicenter of agriculture.
Johnson said a lot of its workers are Minnesota State alums and the university often is represented at Christensen Farms events.
Of the 13 Department of Employment and Economic Development grants, only one other went to an ag-related enterprise. Minnesota State Community and Technical College will be working with DENCO II, an ethanol plant in Morris in western Minnesota, on leadership essentials, maintenance and business technology after being awarded just over $30,000.
Johnson said she has been impressed by working with the Department of Employment and Economic Development since the grant was announced on Dec. 1.
"We feel fully supported," she said.