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Supervising Seasonal and Temporary Workers: Special Considerations

Elizabeth Higgins, Business Management Specialist
Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture

April 4, 2018

Supervising Seasonal and Temporary Workers: Special Considerations
Most fruit and vegetable farms need to hire people on a temporary seasonal basis. The short length of time which seasonal employees will be on your farm does require some special considerations. Although these workers are only on your farm for a little while, they contribute to the success of your farm business. Below are some tips for getting the best contribution out of your seasonal farm staff.

Good Employee-Employer Relations
Although it is challenging to make time for training and orientation during the height of the season, you will increase your worker's commitment to your farm if you can get to know your seasonal employees as quickly as you can and communicate to them their value to the business and the importance of their job. The group is made up of unique individuals who do not want to be viewed as a faceless mass. At a minimum, try to learn each person's name immediately. Find out each person's interests and develop a relationship with him or her as quickly as possible. You want to establish a trusting relationship between the two of you and to develop a commitment to your farm on the part of the worker. When training is short changed, this will help to increase their confidence in coming to you with issues or concerns before they become serious problems.

Language Barriers
If you cannot speak the language of your employees, the best advice is to start learning it immediately. To get the best effort out of your employees they must be able to understand you and be able to communicate problems to you. The inability to communicate with everyone makes establishing good employee-employer relationships with your employees more challenging.

The use of interpreters on farms is a common solution, but it must be done with caution. Often interpreters make inaccurate translations, do not stress the same points that you would, or change what you say to elevate their own position. This responsibility gives them a powerful position in your business. They can withhold, or share information based on their own needs. Rarely do interpreters just translate; often they also supervise groups of workers. With their control of the flow of information they have tremendous power over the people beneath them. Employee grievances may not come to your attention until they have reached unsolvable proportions.

Work Crews
Large groups or labor crews who work closely together can present another challenge. They may live and travel together developing very close bonds. They often depend on each other for food, loans, and other assistance. A supervisor's disagreement with one worker may quickly become a confrontation with the entire crew as it did on one New York farm. One member of a labor crew was told the cost of his damaged picking-sack would be deducted from his pay(2). The rest of the crew agreed with the worker's story that the sack had a broken strap when it was given to him. The disagreement escalated, and the employee was ordered to return to the labor camp. To show their support of their fellow employee, the rest of the crew sat right down in the orchard and refused to work until the man could return to work.

On the other hand, a crew also knows when one employee is disrupting work or is taking advantage of you. You will gain respect of the group by dealing with this employee's behavior fairly. Other employees will support you when they see fair treatment for everyone. If they perceive favoritism or arbitrary treatment, the whole group will react. Establishing a relationship with each individual will be the determining factor. If they know and trust you, they will come to you with problems or complaints before things get out of hand.

Housing
Although good housing conditions can be used to attract workers, when you are providing housing to an employee, you need to be particularly careful about whom you hire. The process of evicting a former employee from housing which you provide can be a lengthy process. The effect of a disruptive employee on your other employees in nearby housing must be considered. Migrant farm workers reported leaving a well-liked employer because other workers at the labor camp were causing problems for them or their families.

Cultural Differences and Values Conflicts
People from various cultural and ethnic groups have different ways of viewing the world and have their own. unique value system. When people from different cultures work together, you need to take the time to talk about differences. Consider these differences as you establish work rules .and methods for achieving your goals. A farm worker repeatedly arrived late for work in the morning. The manager told him that the next incident meant termination of his employment. This farm worker gave rides each morning to two neighbors whose jobs started later than his. The choice of leaving his friends behind or being late for work was not even a choice to him. Of course, he would wait for his friends. Respecting the values of your employees and trying to be flexible in your operation will allow you to draw on the strengths of each person involved. Explaining your production practices and the logic behind your rules will go a long way toward preventing problems.

Resources to help:

The Eastern New York Team will be offering a session with tips and resources (in Spanish) for working with Latino farmworkers at the Winter Fruit School in Albany on Tuesday, February 20.

We are also offering the Human Resource training program "Good To Great in Ag Labor Management" on January 4 and 11 from 9-4 in Ballston Spa and on four consecutive Thursdays in March from 5:00-8:00 pm (March 1-22). Registration is available on the ENYCH website https://enych.cce.cornell.edu/events.php  

(1) Adapted from Embry, Kay "SEASONAL AND TEMPORARY WORKERS: SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS" in Human Resource Management on the Farm: A Management Letter Series. Cornell University Department of Agricultural Economics. AE-Ext 88-22. 1988.

(2) It is illegal in New York State to make deductions from employee's wages for broken or damaged materials.

This material is based upon work supported by USDA/NIFA under Award Number 2015-49200-24225.

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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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