Keeping Employees Engaged On and Off the Farm

Earlier this month, the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics announced July’s unemployment rate at 5.4 percent, down a half percent from June and well below the record high unemployment levels experienced this time last year during the height of COVID. The Bureau also announced the average hourly earnings for all non-farm employees in June at $30.54 per hour, with this being the fourth month of growth in a row and wages up $1.20 from levels a year ago.

The Bureau does not report on farm worker wages, but anyone attempting to hire employees lately, either on or off the farm, has seen the impact of these numbers. Lower unemployment numbers coupled with higher unemployment benefits continuing from the height of the pandemic have resulted in fewer candidates to fill open positions. Higher wages being offered by off-farm employers have compounded the issue with intense competition for the limited number of candidates who are actually looking for work.

A few months ago, the Center launched a “Job Opportunities” page on our website, where we give farms the opportunity to share open job positions. We have been surprised by the number of farms looking for employees and by the difficulty they have had in filling those positions. One person told me that, while in the past they would have had 15 – 20 candidates for an open position, this time they only had six applicants. Five declined the job after they heard what was involved during the interview, and the sixth person quit after the first day of work.

There’s no doubt that we are living in an employee’s job market right now. That is why it’s more important now than ever to do everything you can to retain the employees you do have. While employees may sometimes leave for a higher salary, often their reasons for leaving have more to do with the soft issues than the hard ones. Lack of appreciation, a poor corporate culture, a bad relationship with management, or a lack of clear direction could be reasons why employees leave.

Each of the issues listed above results from a poorly executed employee engagement strategy. This is a challenging area for many farms, often because they start out small with mostly family labor and grow to needing more employees as the farm expands. Most farmers are not natural-born communicators and don’t give a lot of thought to job descriptions, employee feedback mechanisms, or intentional check-ins with staff. However, working the long hours often expected of a farm employee without any feedback or communications from your employer can sometimes cause a person to feel burnt out and underappreciated. If left unchecked, that can lead to them looking elsewhere for employment.

What I Learned the Hard Way

Six years ago when I became director at the Center, this is an area where I really struggled. I had always been on the employee side, so I didn’t spend much time thinking through how to provide regular feedback or stay in touch with my employees. It only took a few months for me to see what a bad decision that was. I had some employees who were frustrated because they felt like they didn’t know what my expectations were, and I had other employees who felt like I didn’t appreciate or understand what they did for the team. In short, it was a disaster. After recognizing some of these problems, I worked with a human resource consultant to identify strategies to address the issues.

Here are a few things we did:

  • Create clearly written job descriptions with expectations for each employee. One of the first things we did is made sure every employee had a job description with their responsibilities and expectations clearly defined. I revisit job descriptions each year with employees to make sure they haven’t changed, and we use them to evaluate performance during the annual review process. It makes my job of supervising them much easier, and it helps them better understand what’s expected of them.
  • Schedule one on ones to provide an opportunity for two-way feedback. If you’re like me, you’ll probably say that you talk to your employees all the time. But how often do you set aside an hour just to listen to them, answer their questions, and share feedback? For my one on ones, I ask each employee to think through in advance what their current priorities are, what questions they have for me, what issues they want to address, and what feedback they want from me. We use those items as points for our discussion.
  • Hold regular team meetings to give employees opportunity to share ideas. As teams get larger, communications among team members becomes increasingly more important. It helps the team members understand the role each person plays in the organization, and it allows them to share ideas and feel engaged in the direction of the organization. For me, the team meetings we have – whether they are a weekly, one-hour call or a longer team meeting – are where we do most of our planning and brainstorming on where we can improve.
  • Develop an annual review process with merit-based salary adjustments. Most employees want to know that they are working toward something. They also want to know whether they are doing a good job and meeting their supervisor’s expectations. Too often on a farm, we expect our employees to do the job day after day and week after week with very little feedback from us. Having an annual review process in place lets them know when and what to expect.
  • Find ways to show appreciation and recognize individuals. To be honest, this one doesn’t come naturally to me, so I must give credit to my co-workers who showed me what a difference these little celebrations can make. Taking the time to celebrate a birthday or recognize someone for going above what’s expected can go a long way in helping them feel valued and important to your organization.

If you are looking for some guidance in fine-tuning your own employee communications and management strategy, we do have a webinar series coming up this fall. Dr. Rich Stup from Cornell specializes in workforce development and will lead a five-part series on “Transforming Your Team” from September 28 through November 23. The sessions will be held every other Tuesday from 8 – 9:30 a.m. To learn more and register, visit or call the Center at 717-346-0849.

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence, and published monthly in the Lancaster Farming Dairy Reporter.