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Making the Leap to Owner-Operator: Are you Labor Ready?

Ethan Grundberg, Vegetable Specialist
Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture

April 4, 2018

Making the Leap to Owner-Operator: Are you Labor Ready?
Deciding to start a farm can present a multitude of challenges. Do you have access to suitable farmland? Have you identified your markets? What equipment are you going to need to put your plan into practice? Will you need to borrow money to start your business? While the question "who is going to do all of the work on the farm?" is also usually on that short list of things that keep aspiring farmers up at night, it is much less common for new growers to ask themselves "do I have the tools and experience necessary to be an effective manager of farm employees?"

Thanks in part to funding from the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (grant number 2017-70017-26837), from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Cornell University and Grow NYC are partnering to work with fruit and vegetable growers across New York to help support advanced beginning farmers hone their personnel management skills and become "labor-ready farmers." Additionally, we will be working on developing resources to support Latino farm employees develop the skills that they need to advance to management level positions on produce farms in the state. We already have some programming in the works focusing on topics from labor regulatory compliance to how to write a great job description, but we are going to want your help identifying labor management issues that you want to improve. To that end, keep an eye out for the survey announcement coming in early 2018 to help shape our curriculum!

Farmers of all ages and experience levels can struggle with attracting and retaining employees, but newer farms operating on a shoestring budget and struggling to develop production and marketing systems with small crews often feel the impact especially acutely. Max Morningstar, owner and operator of MX Morningstar Farm in Copake, NY, described his first few years in this chaotic environment by saying, "the farm was so insane at that point that we didn't so much care what method people were using, so long as it was getting done." The lack of clear expectations and structures for employees to follow can worsen the state of frenzy of a growing season, but can also lead to more work for managers who can fall into the trap of micromanaging under those circumstances. Again, Morningstar felt like he struggled "knowing how to delegate while leading without micromanaging" during the first few years supervising farm employees and has since invested more time in training new employees and setting clear expectations at the outset.

Training and expectation setting are commonly identified by farmers as areas that "need improvement" on the farm, but that are also deemed invaluable for the business to run smoothly. Leon Vehaba, Farm Director at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, has used some of his experiences gleaned from an earlier career in private industry to emphasize training on the farm. Vehaba notes that, "I find that whenever we really invest the time to train people that first week, it really pays off." Jeff Bialas of J&A Farm in Goshen, NY agrees and emphasizes the need to have clear systems in place before hiring to be able to effectively train new employees. Successful training depends on "creating an efficient system and teaching people to work within that system." Jeff also adds that another value of having clear production and marketing systems in place is that it can depersonalize critical feedback. The conversation becomes less about "this is how I want it done" to "this is how it's done here." This initial training and expectation setting is so important to Jeff that he makes sure that he's the one in the field working with new employees for the bulk of the first two weeks on the job. This helps to ensure that the new crew clearly understands the processes that he has in place, allows sufficient time to observe how those employees are acclimating, and provides an opportunity for timely constructive feedback.

It is easy to write off labor sourcing and retention challenges as being a natural outcome of the inherent misery of farm work. Who wants to work long hours in inclement weather doing repetitive and uncomfortable tasks for what is often a less-than-living wage, right? How can I expect to keep my crew year after year when I can't offer them year-round work? Though there is certainly some truth in those statements, it is also the case that some farms have found ways to improve labor management and create incentives for workers to stick around for many years that don't have to cost the business a lot of time or money. For example, research out of Central California found that respectful treatment of employees by managers and owners was one of the biggest factors influencing labor retention and happiness at work (see http://www.cirsinc.org/publications/farm-labor?download=47:positive-practices-in-farm-labor-management-keeping-your-employees-happy-and-your-production-profitable for more information). Or, as Jeff Bialas put it, "a lot of it [labor retention] comes down to having a safe and comfortable place to work."

There are plenty of other examples of how to improve personnel management on the farm and we're excited to share them with you over the next couple of years. In addition to continuing with this labor management article series, we'll be announcing a series of webinars, roundtables for Latino farm employees, and more over the winter. For now, please reach out to Kat McCarthy at the Cornell Small Farms Program (kmm485@cornell.edu), Gabriela Pereyra at Grow NYC (gpereyra@grownyc.org), or Ethan Grundberg at Cornell Cooperative Extension (eg572@cornell.edu) for more information.

This work is supported by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program grant no. 2017-70017-26837, from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


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Upcoming Events

Tarping for Reduced Tillage Workshop

November 2 - November 19, 2019

Are you a vegetable farmer already using tarps? Or are you wondering if and how tarps could work best on your farm?

The Cornell Small Farms Program is excited to announce a series of workshops on tarping for reduced tillage in small-scale vegetable systems, to be held in Maine and New York this fall. The Reduced Tillage (RT) project of the Cornell Small Farms Program supports farmers in adopting scale-appropriate RT practices that can lead to healthy, productive soils and greater profitability. Through the evaluation of novel tools and methods using systems-based field research and on-farm trials, the project helps farmers learn about the approaches that can work for their farm. This work is accomplished in collaboration with the University of Maine, and with support from Northeast SARE.

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Winter Greens High Tunnel Tour

November 13, 2019
9:30am - 4:00pm
Willsboro, NY

Join us for a tour of overwintered high tunnel greens. Our first stop will be the Willsboro Research Farm, where we will visit our spinach nitrogen fertility experiment, discuss research results, and view a sous vide hot water seed treatment demonstration. Following an early lunch, we will carpool across the lake via the ferry to the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, Vermont. The Intervale has been providing organic vegetables to the greater Burlington area for 30 years and has a 600 member CSA. Farm manager Andy Jones will discuss their evolving winter greens production practices, including variety selection, soil fertility, irrigation, and food safety practices. After touring their high tunnels and new wash/pack shed, we will return to Willsboro.

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Learn About Using the H-2A Program on Small Farms

November 18, 2019
1:30pm - 4:00pm
Schenectady, NY

Are you worried about labor next season on your farm?
Are you wondering if the H-2A program will make sense on your farm?

The H-2A program allows US employers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the US to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Join us to learn about how to use the H-2A program on small farms. Learn from US DOL H-2A staff and a CSA vegetable farmer, with experience using H-2A, about what it takes to use the program.

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Announcements

Resources from CCE ENYCHP!

We are developing new ways to connect with the CCE ENYCHP team this year! We have a Youtube page located at this link. Check out videos on Table Grape Production, Pest Updates and the 20 Minute Ag Manager - in 4 Minutes series

We have a Facebook Page here as well as an Instagram page. We keep these places updated with current projects, events, and other interesting articles and deadlines.

There are also text alerts available. Fruit and vegetable farmers in 17 Eastern NY counties can now receive real time alerts on high risk disease and pest outbreaks texted directly to their cell phone. The Eastern NY Commercial Horticulture program, which is supported by local Cornell Cooperative Extension associations, will now offer text alerts to those that enroll in our program in 2019. 

The text alerts will be reserved for important crop alerts that could impact management decisions immediately. For instance, if there were an outbreak of Late Blight in the area, this would be transmitted to vegetable growers.

Farmers can choose the crop for which they wish to receive updates. Additionally they can request that Ag Business Alerts be sent to them. These alerts might include due dates for crop insurance deadlines, market opportunities etc.

If you have questions, please contact enychp@cornell.edu


Podcasts

Climate Change Adaptations

September 30, 2019
In this episode regional vegetable specialist Elisabeth Hodgdon interviews University of Vermont PHD student Alissa White about a series of interviews with growers in the north east concerning climate change adaptations.

Listeners can access Alissa White’s climate change adaptation survey report and additional information on the project by clicking on the following link:

https://adaptationsurvey.wordpress.com/results/
Alissa’s project was sponsored by a Northeast SARE Graduate Student Grant (GNE17-163).

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