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Farm Labour: Strategies for Eliminating Staffing Headaches


With spring around the corner, agricultural producers are facing one of the biggest challenges of running a successful operation — finding and retaining labour. As the size of farms increases due to consolidation, having full- and part-time staff is becoming a necessity but, for a number of reasons, many producers are finding it increasingly difficult to fill positions. Fortunately, there are strategies that can be implemented to make hiring and retaining labour easier; they just might require new ways of approaching the issue.

Equipment operators are in high demand today and that means the cost of farm labour is rising. Competing against the oil industry, which comparatively pays higher wages, can make it difficult for agricultural producers to match. Farmers are also challenged by the fact that they need more employees in the spring and fall than in the summer and winter. It’s hard to find people who are content to work just six or eight months out of the year, but that’s exactly what farming operations need.

The equipment being used on farms is adding to the labour challenge. Sophisticated technology requires a higher level of aptitude so it’s no longer possible to just offer anyone the job. In addition, retired farmers who once formed part of the seasonal labour pool aren’t interested in learning the new technologies required to operate expensive equipment.

Today’s producers need to view labour from a more corporate human resource perspective. Traditionally, managing people hasn’t been high on the farmer’s to-do list but it needs to become job one if you want to keep your operation profitable. Investing time and effort into figuring out how to be top-notch HR managers, hiring an HR manager for your farm or outsourcing to an HR management company is critical to your success.

Effective HR programs include planning for labour and personnel requirements, developing job descriptions, conducting interviews and reference checks and implementing appropriate employee management practices. They also include developing an appropriate wage and benefit program. While it’s important to set a competitive wage, it’s not realistic for producers to match the wages paid by more lucrative industries. Instead, focus on offering a fair wage and other benefits that improve qualify of life for employees.

One potential solution to the wage issue is to offer employees some type of ownership, whether this is buying into the farm or receiving stock option rewards. This can be a difficult move for producers who are used to owning their farms outright, many for generations, but it’s an excellent method of getting employees to stay with you. It is much harder to walk away from a business you own, and the ability to profit is an incentive to maximize productivity.

As the traditional labour pool shrinks, producers also need to look at new sources of labour. Foreign labour is one option to be explored and it should be investigated well ahead of when you’re going to need people. Although it requires time and effort to bring people into the country to work for you, it can be a very effective means of securing long-term employees with significant drive and determination.

When it comes to seasonal labour needs, hiring custom operators can be an excellent option. These companies, based in both U.S. and Canada, start earlier in the year in February or March, run until November or December and don’t have summer slow downs, so they don’t have the same issues with labour retention.

If you’re running 4,000 – 50,000+ acre grain farm, you can’t do it alone. Producers need good people and to get them, they’re going to have to improve human resource management, look for new labour pools and consider custom crews. Adopting these strategies will reduce the headaches associated with labour challenges and help to ensure the success of your farming operation.

To find out how MNP can help you, contact Stuart Person, CPA, CA, National Director of Primary Producers with MNP’s Agricultural Services at 306.765.8581 or [email protected]

To learn about MNP’s Managing People on the Farm training course, contact Bob Tosh, P.Ag, FEA, Farm and Family Business Advisor with MNP’s Consulting Services group, at 306.665.6766 or [email protected]