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Farm Jobs: Tips for Building a Team on a Small, Sustainable Diversified Farm

By Alan Haight

Farm jobs are available in almost every zip code in the country, but finding the right employee and work team can take a little creativity and effort. In fact, regenerative farming does not leave out the people-factor when it comes to sustainability, and many challenges and questions can arise. How are fair working wages and pleasant working conditions balanced with keeping produce prices low enough for the farm’s customers? How does one weigh the desire for the farmer to remain self-sustaining and independent against offering employment for local citizens? And, where does one farm’s hired help stand within the larger picture of sustainable agriculture?

Here are some thoughts shared by Alan Haight on the challenges of hiring farm help, what he has learned and how he has met the challenges so far:

“The internship phenomenon is very widespread, and it may be contributing to a relative dearth of paid positions that pay a livable wage.

“We rely on online advertising for hiring. Primarily, I use the EcoFarm and CCOF job listings, but also Sustainable Food Jobs and Good Food Jobs. This year I also placed our ad on the ATTRA website, but this listing is primarily for internships and not for regular paid employment.

farm hands
A worker helps transplant seedlings to the field.

“We used to employ interns. Two years ago we switched to hiring regular paid employees, and we now have three out of our four-member crew returning, two of them for their third year and one for her second. We’ve hired one new full-time employee who has worked for two years on another California farm, and we’ve hired a part-time employee from the local community. This is a much longer discussion and it’s probably controversial, but I have been surprised by how few applications I’ve received when advertising paid positions, compared to the 100-120 applications I used to receive for internships.

“At this point, I would expect there to be many individuals in the United States who have interned on farms for one or two years that would be very eager to find a position as a paid employee. The controversial part about which I’m sure there is a broad range of opinion, is whether or not the internship phenomenon is impeding the development of a strong, skilled labor force for sustainable small farms. The internship phenomenon is very widespread, and it may be contributing to a relative dearth of paid positions that pay a livable wage. This may be having the effect of discouraging interns who are not able to find paid positions, and are leaving work on small farms because they can’t figure out how to support themselves and remain in ag. Like I said, it’s a much bigger topic, but deserves consideration. In a nutshell, if it’s supposed to be sustainable agriculture, how sustainable is it if it depends on an underpaid and very transient workforce?

“In terms of hiring quality employees, I couldn’t be happier with our crew at this time. I think it’s luck to have found good, thoughtful individuals and the fact that the farm is a desirable place to work, combined with me learning more about how to be a good employer, that have come together to produce this good result. We are a small, intimate group that spends a lot of time together, so I’ve tended to emphasize that we should all get along, work cooperatively, stay focused on producing a quality product that we can be proud of and work reasonably hard with consideration for the fact that all of us get tired, or bored or discouraged at one or more times during the season.”

This article is in the May 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.