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Farming. It’s more than a job

Human Resources: When a young employee left their farm to look for a job that could become a career, Kris Mayerle asked, ‘Why can’t that be here?’

At the edge of the boreal forest in northeast Saskatchewan, the Mayerle family hires 13 full and seasonal employees for their 21,000-acre farm, seed processing plant and custom harvesting business. One of their employees is in his 43rd year with the company, another is going on 18 years, and many others have been there more than five years.

What is the secret to their human resources success?

The people who work for Kris Mayerle are employees, not hired hands. It’s an important distinction, indicating a respect that is likely one of the many reasons the pedigreed seed farm near Tisdale has successfully attracted and retained workers for three generations.

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Mayerle, with wife Rhonda and the continued seasonal help of his father Erwin, grows wheat, canola, oats, barley, peas, fababeans, hemp and flax, with roughly a third in seed production. They also run a seed cleaning and processing plant and have operated a custom harvesting business in Western Canada and the United States for 22 years.

At 45, Mayerle’s skill in human resources was developed first by watching how his dad handled employees, supplemented by the experience he gained when the custom harvesting business that he and Rhonda started after graduating from university took off.

Even with this generational experience handling people, a few years ago a young employee at Green Leaf Seeds resigned, saying he was looking for a “career” job.

“I had to ask myself, why can’t that be here?” says Mayerle. “Why does a 23-year-old think he has to work somewhere else to have a career?”

The question drove him to hire a human resource consultant to examine how they were managing their employees. The results have been remarkable, and Green Leaf Seeds now has the reputation of being a good place to work, and yes, a good place to have a career.

It starts with hiring the right people. Mayerle wants his employees to have a good work ethic, to be honest and trainable, adding, “I’m looking for someone who is interested in what we do here, a person who is happy to see the farm be successful, happy to see it grow.”

But it would be reasonable to assume that few new employees arrive at the farm with that attitude. That kind of engagement stems from how an employer treats and manages the people he hires.

“Sundays off no matter what. It’s amazing how much that means to them,” Mayerle says.

Wages at Green Leaf Seeds are as good or better than anywhere. The farm has implemented a benefits plan that is cost-shared with employees, and it developed a bonus structure dependent on employee performance. “They work hard whether we have a crop or not,” Mayerle says. “If a weather event affects the farm, that’s not their fault. The bonus is paid on their work.”

Green Leaf Seeds is also in the process of implementing a pension plan.

Aside from these very “career-like” employee plans, workers are contracted with a letter of engagement, they are provided employee manuals and they go through employee evaluations. “Twice a year we sit down with employees and talk about their job and what they can do for Green Leaf Seeds,” says Mayerle. “But we also talk about what Green Leaf Seeds can do for them.”

They also talk about employee strengths and weaknesses and where they’d like to be in five years. “It helps everyone know where they’re at and helps me to plan ahead,” he says. “If someone knows they want to retire within five years, I can start recruiting and training properly.”

Daily, Mayerle tries to be organized so his employees know what’s going on and what’s expected of them. Also, he tries to include them in operations by listening to their ideas. “If they are good ideas, I tell them so. And if we implement their ideas, they can see it. It makes them feel more involved. Otherwise a job becomes humdrum.”

Employees at Green Leaf Seeds have different interests and different kinds of expertise, and as much as possible they are given the opportunity to work in those areas. If one enjoys — and is efficient at — working in the seed cleaning plant, that’s their winter job. Another likes to truck so he hauls grain. A third is good at fixing things so he is mostly in the shop. “Everybody does everything, but they can still specialize.”

As people gain experience there are opportunities for not only increased pay but growth and promotion within the positions on the farm.

Moreover, Mayerle provides professional development in the form of paid training days to attend the Farm Progress Show or Crop Production Week in Saskatoon.

Sound like a career yet?

While it isn’t always easy to provide the full-time employment most are looking for, diversification of their farm business operations helps. Employees who start in early spring help put in the farm’s crop and then head to the U.S. for the first harvest there. They return to Saskatchewan for harvest and fall work and then go back for the U.S. soybean and corn harvest run. During the winter months, Mayerle is able to keep staff busy hauling grain, working in the shop, and cleaning seed.

It seems to work, and perhaps the clincher is that as Mayerle speaks, it’s clear he cares about his employees. Today, he contends the trouble with HR on farms is often an inability of farmers to distinguish between the priorities of the owner and the employee. While the work is structured, he tries to be flexible. “I want to go see my kid in the school play, so I have to understand that they want to do those things too.”

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