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Keep employees on the farm

Do you really know if your employees are thinking of quitting?

If you feel your employee turnover is too high, talk to other farmers with similar-sized farms to see how they compare.

Hiring and training the right people is costly, and the last thing you need as you head into the busy season is the added stress of losing a key person.

The good news is there is a lot you can do as an employer to keep your staff. Even better, it’s not just about higher wages.

“Money’s important,” says Winnipeg HR performance consultant Michelle Painchaud, “but it’s only part of the story.”

Feeling appreciated and having a sense of belonging are the main reasons people give for staying in a job, says Painchaud. “It doesn’t matter if they are a labourer or a senior leader, appreciation is a key retention factor.”

Unfortunately, too many farmers sink a lot of effort into recruiting staff but then don’t look after keeping them. Putting a retention strategy in place makes financial sense, Painchaud says. “If you have a good reputation it also helps with recruitment.”

Not surprisingly, communication is key when it comes to creating a healthy workplace culture that makes employees want to stay. But how do you make it happen?

Painchaud suggests having quarterly meetings where you inform the staff about what’s going on with the farm, the reasons behind decisions that have been made, and any changes that are coming. “Get people involved in the big picture,” she says. “It’s a simple thing to do.”

Celebrations are another way of showing appreciation, says Painchaud, who recommends thinking beyond the Christmas lunch. Think about little celebrations that show appreciation of the team for a job well done or a great harvest.

However, employers do need to recognize there is a fine line between what feels to an employee like a celebration and what feels like another obligation. “You don’t want employees thinking ‘I’m with these people all the time already, I don’t want to spend my time off with them too.’”

Too many farmers assume they know what their employees want, says Painchaud. “We have to remember that what can be motivating to one person can be poison to another.” Retention strategies need to be customized, even though that’s tricky to do.

“You need to find out what motivates each individual employee and build incentives around that,” agrees Kevin Kirkwood, a farm management specialist with Backswath Management in Melville, Sask.

Kirkwood says farmers are often surprised to learn why valued employees left. Offering a farm vehicle, career education opportunities, or more time off during the slow season to help aging parents or to take kids to hockey could make the difference between an employee staying and leaving, he says.

Generational differences may also be a factor when it comes to what employees are looking for, says Jamie Gruman, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph. Many younger employees aren’t simply looking for a paycheque. “They want purpose. They don’t want bosses, they want coaches. They don’t want annual reviews, they want ongoing conversations.”

It all means employers must think more deeply about what employees want and what you can give them, Gruman says.

Painchaud has some simple suggestions for finding out what employees really want.

During the slow season, she suggests having what she calls a huddle. “Bring in pizza or sandwiches for lunch and ask your employees what they’d like to see.”

On farms with larger workforces, create a survey to ask for employee input. For accurate results, you’ll need to ensure confidentiality, says Painchaud. Have the participants check boxes or provide ratings rather than written comments, she suggests.

But whatever size farm, every few years have one-on-one meetings to ask employees “What’s important to you that could see you leave here to try to get?”

The annual performance review is another opportunity to have a conversation around what matters to employees, says Kirkwood, pointing out that it helps if farmers receive training on how to do the reviews properly.

Sometimes a job can be redesigned to make it more appealing, says Gruman. Piecework is really boring, so can the job be enlarged with more responsibilities to make it more interesting? Social networks are also important. Can you change who people work with?

While the shortage of farm labour means there’s competition for the best employees, showing your appreciation, listening to employee concerns, and accommodating their wish lists can go a long way to making sure valued employees stick around.



Why employees stay

People stay in their jobs for a number of reasons, says Jamie Gruman, University of Guelph professor of organizational psychology. Researchers use the term “embeddedness” to describe a collection of forces that influence employee retention including fit, links and sacrifice.

“Fit” is whether an employee feels engaged with an organization and the community. “Links” considers the number of connections the employee has to the organization and the community, such as having family in the area. “Sacrifice” is what a person would give up if they left the job, such as an easy commute, friendships, or vacation time.

Another way of looking at why people stay in their jobs is to consider their mindset, says University of Guelph organizational psychology professor Deborah Powell. There are three basic types. The first is called Affective Commitment. These are people with an emotional attachment to their job. “They like to be there and they tend to be good performers,” she says.

The second mindset refers to those with what’s been called a Normative Commitment. They aren’t staying because they’re attached to the job so much as because they feel comfortable staying, says Powell. “This is less desirable.”

The last mindset is called a Continuance Commitment. These employees aren’t really engaged but need the paycheque, or are hanging on because the work is in a convenient location. “This may be okay for seasonal workers but it isn’t a great mindset for the long term,” says Powell.

Why they go

Some turnover is natural and is actually healthy for an organization, says University of Guelph professor Jamie Gruman. If employees who are not meeting your performance expectations leave, that can be desirable.

“And with turnover comes new blood, new ideas,” says Gruman.

However, if you feel like employee turnover is too high, Gruman suggests talking to other farmers with similar-sized farms in your sector to see how your farm compares.

If your turnover rates are too high, you could consider conducting exit surveys to find out why employees leave, says HR consultant Michelle Painchaud. However, you’ll need to have an objective third party conduct the interviews to get to the truth. “Employees won’t be honest with the boss,” says Painchaud. “There’s a saying in HR that the boss is the most common reason employees quit.”

More than money

There are lots of incentives you can offer employees that don’t involve a pay raise.*

  • Transportation benefits such as access to farm vehicles for personal use.
  • On-farm housing and/or lodging for animals belonging to employees such as horses.
  • Use of the farm workshop and tools to work on personal vehicles.
  • Meals during the busy harvest season.
  • Staff barbecues, appreciation dinners, birthday celebrations.
  • Farm product such as meat and produce.
  • Education and a training allowance for upgrading skills.
  • Flexible hours including mother’s shifts (shifts starting later and ending earlier to accommodate school drop-off and pickup), student’s shifts (shifts that accommodate class schedules), extra time off at Christmas.
  • Free clothing or a clothing allowance for coveralls, gloves, hats, etc., needed for work.
  • Health-related benefits such as dental, prescription drugs and physical therapy.
  • Service awards for years of service (e.g. 10 years).
  • Christmas gifts.
  • Gift cards for coffee shops, restaurants, or gas stations for a job well done.

*Source: Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council


The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) has developed a detailed online Human Resources Tool Kit specifically for the agricultural sector. It is available by subscription and includes info on retention strategies.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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