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The new employee

Are your HR skills holding your farm back?

Farms keep getting bigger and more complex. But at the same time, farm families keep getting smaller, with farming couples having fewer kids, just like other Canadians.

On many farms, this collision of demographic and economic trends means the days of running the farm by putting the family to work are gone.

You can’t even hire the kids down the road. They aren’t there any more.

Leah Knibbs

Leah Knibbs would know. She owns a human resources consulting firm (Kn/a HR Consulting), and is a partner in a recruiting firm (Kn/a Sourcing People), so she hears about labour issues from the people most directly impacted — the farmers.

She started her human resources practice while living on the farm in Saskatchewan. After 25 years, she moved from the farm into Weyburn, where her company serves agribusiness clients, including primary producers.

With less local supply, more farmers are having to pull in employees from other industries, Knibbs says, which can be where the challenge starts.

From the farm perspective, that’s because those new employees don’t understand agriculture. But from the employees’ perspective, it can be because the farmers aren’t on the same wavelength about core job issues.

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Then, those misunderstandings boil up because new employees who don’t have a farm background may not realize how long the hours can be, or how physically hard the work is, says Tracy Biernacki-Dusza, a project manager with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC).

To a degree, however, it doesn’t help to think about it in terms of who is right and who is wrong (which may be the first inclination for farmers who have worked and done chores all their lives). After all, you still need employees, right?

So how do you know whether you need to brush up your HR chops? And should you try to learn how to manage your employees yourself, or hire someone to manage your HR for you?

The evolution of HR on the farm

“People say to me, ‘I don’t do HR.’ Well, did you hire someone? Are you paying them?” Biernacki-Dusza chuckles. If you answer yes, she says, HR is part of your job description. It’s something you’re accountable for, and it’s something that, for the sake of the farm, you need to do well.

Knibbs compares it to accounting, and how that has evolved as the nature of farming has changed. “Accounting used to look like a shoebox to the accountant,” says Knibbs. Then farm journals came in, followed by more complex record-keeping and analysis, so today’s farmers have more sophisticated systems.

The thing is, however, that while farmers may never have enjoyed doing book work, they went through this accounting revolution because they began to see the returns that it produces. And the more they understood what their accountants were talking about, the more they were motivated to make accounting a core — and enjoyable — part of their farm management.

Now, the same thing is happening with HR on the farm.

But is your farm still at the shoe-box stage of HR practice? And if it is, what’s the best way to begin your own evolution?

The first step is to recognize that major transformations are underway as farmers look for better ways to lead their people.

Over the last year, for instance, Biernacki-Dusza oversaw the creation of National Occupational Standards for 11 commodities, including beef and crop production. Those standards include job descriptions that also define the skills and knowledge an employee needs for the job.

Biernacki-Dusza and her colleagues outlined four roles within each of those commodities: entry level, experienced level, supervisor, and manager.

Unlike other industries, where most workers have defined roles, a farm employee may be just expected to show up and to fit in, doing the jobs that they get assigned.

After all, that’s what farmers do too. On any given day, most farmers do a combination of jobs that range in skill level from labourer to senior manager, Biernacki-Dusza says. “I think that’s such a unique thing.”

However, while that kind of flexibility can seem a plus to the farmer, it can leave the employee uncertain about what’s expected of them.

That doesn’t mean the approach is wrong. It just makes it more important that the farmer and the employee get on the same page, especially because the non-farm employee is likely coming from an environment where jobs have very clear roles and expectations.

So while a farmer might wonder why anyone would bother defining all those roles in the first place, a lot of it is about outlining the expectations and tasks of an entry-level employee when the farmer hires help.

On the farm, Biernacki-Dusza explains, information tends to be passed along verbally, making it easy to miss something.

You’re still the boss

Having employees means you need to be able to talk to them about your expectations. You also need to manage their performance, and you need to be able to do that while taking on all the other tasks that come with being a manager.

And that can actually be more difficult in a farm context, partly because there can be an unwritten tendency for the employee to almost become part of the family, says Knibbs.

“I think those relationships are wonderful when there is that camaraderie,” she says. “But I’ve seen that camaraderie get in the way of good business.”

Biernacki-Dusza agrees farmers need to have some formality in the employer-employee relationship. “It’s to protect yourself, and to protect the employee.” Writing everything down helps avoid surprises, as everyone knows what to expect if there’s a dispute, she says.

And it’s not just the non-family employees who can benefit from good HR leadership, although farmers do need to keep in mind that if family members are treated differently than other employees, those employees might perceive unfairness, Biernacki-Dusza says.

It’s an extra reason for having actual job descriptions. Besides, she says, those descriptions will also make it easier to navigate your way through succession. Job descriptions simplify the transfer tasks to the next generation, so the kids can have some autonomy and not have Dad looking over their shoulder all the time.

As well, descriptions can make it easier to assign a son or daughter to supervise an employee (or employees). With a description, everyone can be clear on how the job will be assessed at the end of the day, and it will be easier to mentor the son or daughter on their leadership skills.

Do it yourself or contract it out?

When Knibbs went into business, one of the best pieces of advice she got was, “Know what you do well, and buy the rest.”

This advice probably rings true for many farmers too, who are no strangers to contracting services from agronomists, custom harvesters, and accountants. Taking on more land feeds into this need as well.

“Time pressures tend to help you sort out your priorities,” Knibbs says. Farmers need to decide what they do well because that’s where they can be effective and make their money.

Whether farmers decide they have the skill set to manage people, or they are willing to develop it, is partly a personal choice, Knibbs says. A lot of it comes down to whether the farmer likes doing it, and how it fits into the overall business plan.

Some farmers can justify hiring a foreman, or contracting an HR firm to help with bigger questions such as how to hire and keep employees. But the day-to-day stuff is still going to be in their hands, Knibbs says.

“If you are going to have employees, you can never run away from being a supervisor,” she says. As the farm grows, someone will need to be able to manage people. Usually, farm families figure out who has the best head for it, she says, which is a good approach.

“You have to look at the people in your family, each individually, because everybody has certain skills,” says Biernacki-Dusza.

Knibbs says there’s no magic test to measure a person’s HR skills. But there are all kinds of self-analysis tools to figure out what kind of leader you are, she says.

To Knibbs, asking questions is the key to evaluating one’s HR potential. “How good am I at leading and managing my people?”

Next, Knibbs says, it’s a matter of figuring out whether expectations of employees are clear, whether the farmer is following laws and regulations, and how the farm’s recent hires have turned out. Knibbs compares it to asking questions about a crop rotation. How did the barley perform when it followed the lentils?

Biernacki-Dusza suggests farmers read through CAHRC’s Agri HR Toolkit, an online resource that goes through what farmers need to know to manage people. If a farmer wonders if they need help hiring employees after reading through the recruitment and retention section, she says, they probably do.

Three red flags

Is it time to call in an HR consultant to boost your farm’s performance?

The first warning sign seems like it should be an obvious one. But it isn’t always that simple. This red flag is a farm that can’t keep staff.

The trouble is, it’s easy to blame the employees, instead of taking a hard look at whether the problem is closer to home, says Leah Knibbs of consulting firm Kn/a HR Consulting in Weyburn, Sask.

The easy thing is to complain that employees don’t have a work ethic. “But what if it happens multiple times?” Knibbs asks. “If you can’t keep staff, the common denominator is you.”

Another red flag is when you are losing sleep over someone’s performance or attitude, whether it’s a family or non-family employee.

“You’ve got something in your belly that’s working on you,” says Knibbs. Typically, she says, it means you’re seeing problems with an employee’s performance, but you don’t know how to address it.

The third flag is when you find yourself wondering if you are meeting employment standards set out by law, and you’re not exactly sure how to find answers to your questions about how your are compensating your staff, how you are handling their health and safety, or the conditions of their employment.

If you do have red flag issues on your farm, the first step is to put your issues into perspective.

You aren’t the only one to have questions, Knibbs says. The HR environment is changing, both in terms of employee expectations and in terms of the rules and regulations, and rural employers of all kinds are finding it can be a challenge to keep up.

Farmers facing HR issues should remember that they’ve overcome new problems already. Knibbs compares it to a time on her own farm when wheat midge first started chewing through southern Sask­atchewan crops. Her husband was losing sleep over this new problem.

“So what does he do? He calls somebody who knows about this stuff, and then he increased his capacity,” Knibbs says. “And dealing with wheat midge just became a regular thing.”

Getting help

The good news for farmers is that there are resources to help them become better managers.

For instance, Tracy Biernacki-Dusza, project manager with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), says her organization is revamping their website and the AgriSkills HR Toolkit so they’re in plain English to make it easier for farmers unfamiliar with human resources jargon.

The revised toolkit will help farmers identify and manage their HR problems. The toolkit can be obtained by clicking on the toolkit tab at the council’s site,

National job board

The council has also created a national agriculture job board at Farmers can pull in and customize the job descriptions that CAHRC recently completed, and they can also post job ads.

As well, the site provides an interview guide, and once employees have been hired, the site’s job descriptions can help farmers design training for a new employee.

Meanwhile, Knibbs and her colleagues are developing an HR boot camp that will include four modules. “It’s not going to make you an HR expert, but you’re going to be at least aware and have some of the basic skills.”

On the farm

Working with an HR expert can help as well, Knibbs says. For example, hiring an expert to develop an employee manual means that it will likely include good practices and be current. And a good HR consultant will make sure the farmer knows more by the end of the process.

Creative farmers could also create their own HR support groups, similar to other peer groups focused on things like benchmarking costs. The group could invite speakers, Knibbs says.

CAHRC is also developing resources to help farmers train employees. The online courses will cover the reasons behind the jobs that need to get done on the farm, Biernacki-Dusza says. The aim is to give employees the why, then allow the producer to show employees how to do it, she adds.

Knibbs is confident farmers can up their HR game. They’re smart people, she says. Plus they’ve done it in other areas already.

Says Knibbs: “If they looked at HR in the same way that they looked at building their capacity in other areas, it would be much easier.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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