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The inclusive, prosperous farm

Looking to boost your farm’s numbers? Bring a diverse work force to the job, and set them up to perform at their best

As farm businesses grow and become more complex, farmers are recognizing the importance of harnessing the full potential of the farm’s human resources. This means creating an inclusive workplace where both male and female members of the team can thrive and help the farm business meet its goals.

A diverse workforce, it turns out, will help your farm produce measurably better productivity.

Diversity drives innovation, explains Pam Paquet, a Fraser Valley psychologist and business consultant. A mix of genders, generations and personalities gives different perspectives, she says. “It challenges the old school thinking of if it ain’t broken, why fix it?”

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Businesses and indeed the entire economy are best served when both women and men are employed at all levels, agrees Jaqui Parchment, senior partner for Mercer Canada, a global consultant in talent, health, retirement and investments.

Parchment says their 2016 global research study called When Women Thrive, shows that “while men bring important skills to a workplace, an equal proportion of women would introduce different, but just as effective skills, such as those involving team- and people-building, flexibility, problem solving, and emotional intelligence.”

Despite this, however, traditional job design and leadership competencies are more often closely aligned with the relative strengths of men, leaving potential business growth untapped, says Parchment.

Passionate leadership

Changing gender roles on the farm may require a mind shift for some members of the farm team. Strong leadership can help create a respectful environment where all team members feel valued and are able to do their best work.

These changes require buy-in from senior management, and they also require support for women’s unique health and financial needs, says Parchment, who explains that Mercer has coined the “6 Ps” to describe the changes necessary to help women thrive in the workforce:

  • Passionate leadership
  • Personal commitment to gender equity
  • Perseverance
  • Proof-based decision making
  • Processes that are predictable
  • Programs for training and growth

The 6 Ps can be a roadmap on the farm too, providing a kind of checklist to ensure your farm’s female team members will know they are welcome, and that they will be able to contribute at their best.

“In short, there must be a mix of personal commitment and structural changes that work together to improve diversity and inclusion,” Parchment says.

Formalized structure and clear roles

It’s important to have a formalized structure with clarity of purpose, roles, responsibilities and the values of the organization, says Terry Betker, a farm adviser at Backswath Management in Manitoba.

In other words, a high-performing, inclusive workplace needs to become one of the farm’s values. It must articulate that belief, and as with other values, Betker says, “The business must live its values, and when faced with management decisions, it must test them against those values.”

Such values may be even more important for women than men, Betker says, especially if there are areas on the farm where women feel they aren’t welcome.

Paquet agrees, adding that it’s important to have clarity around what is expected of each team member.

Farmers may think they don’t need to set up job descriptions because it’s a family-run business, and everyone knows their role. Yet that can be exactly the kind of workplace where job descriptions are even more important, Paquet says, because there are too many unspoken assumptions floating around.

Like other assumptions, HR assumptions can be most dangerous when they stop you asking questions.

For instance, says Betker, it’s been easy in the past to assume that gender is a good basis for deciding who does what job. But when you challenge it, that assumption starts to crumble.

“Most jobs can be done equally well by both genders these days,” Betker says.

And that’s not just true of shopwork or field work. For instance, don’t assume that keeping the books is women’s work, says Betker. A better way to determine who is best suited for a job is to use personality assessments.

“And if no one wants to do a job it would be better to outsource it,” he says. “Otherwise it won’t receive the attention it should.”

The assertiveness factor

Men and women often have different communication styles, and this can present some challenges.

Paquet says women may want to look at a situation from different angles and talk about it, while men may be more analytical and present a decision instead of seeking input from the other team members.

Sometimes women also have a hard time being assertive when there is conflict, continues Paquet. There has been a lot of pressure historically on women to be the ones who step back in order to maintain group harmony.

Men seem also to have an easier time drawing boundaries between work and their personal lives, she adds, but coaching can help women to overcome this tendency.

Women also know that even though they need to be assertive in order to contribute at their best, assertive women are often characterized as “bitchy,” says Paquet. “Women in leadership are often judged with a harsh brush.”

Communication is key

Strong communication is essential to ensuring the farm team works together efficiently, says Betker. “Communications must be formalized with a clear meeting structure,” he says. “You must run the farm as a business.”

Cathy Mak, vice-president of human resources and compliance at Leamington’s Lakeside Produce agrees that communication is key.

“Employees need a voice, a listening post,” she says. She used an employee survey to elicit input from the company’s packing plant staff. As a result of the survey feedback, the company changed from a rotating shift schedule to a set schedule, which made it easier for the predominantly female employees to arrange childcare.

The result was a big increase in employee retention rates, says Mak.

Like Mak, Anne Burnham, who runs Burnham Family Farm Market near Cobourg, Ont., says two-way communication is essential. “Good communication is key and I’m always working at it,” she says.

Burnham tries to check in with each of her employees individually at paycheque time to find out how they are doing and if they are having any problems. Listening to the employees is an important part of her job as a manager, she says.

She also gives the employees feedback on how the business is performing. “A paycheque is not everything for job satisfaction,” she says.

Burnham suspects that communication is one area where farm businesses can improve. Farmers who are used to working alone and making their own decisions may not be aware of the level of communication required, she says.

Reinforce inclusive values

Michelle Painchaud, a business consultant who specializes in agricultural HR issues, says signage placed in common areas as well as clauses in employee manuals can reinforce the idea that each member of the team has value regardless of age or gender.

Painchaud has also seen companies create bonuses for being respectful and for being team players instead of the usual incentives based on profit or end of harvest. And if proactive steps aren’t working, disciplinary steps may be required for employees who are disrespectful to other staff.

Tips for creating an inclusive farm business

Source: Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council Agri HR Toolkit

Negative behaviours to avoid

  • Ignoring, dismissing, interrupting, or speaking over others.
  • Using negative non-verbal behaviours (rolling your eyes, shaking your head).
  • Failing to give credit where it is due.
  • Looking at your smartphone, computer or watch while someone is speaking to you.

Positive behaviours to reinforce

  • Give everyone a clear set of rules and expectations to guide their behaviour.
  • Include these rules in an employee policy handbook and post them in the employee lunchroom.
  • Use inclusive language such as sales person, not salesman; cleaner not cleaning lady; staff in the office not the girls in the office; supervisor not foreman.
  • Be aware of how a joke or comments may be perceived. What is funny to one individual could be offensive to another.

Training resources

  • Workshops available from the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion
  • e-learning available from [email protected]
  • Mentorship, coaching for women from Women in Leadership

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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