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It’s their job

More farmers like John and Kristi Burns have family and non-family members working side by side, making it vital to set clear job expectations

Dustin and Kristi Burns.

Job descriptions for new farm employees help them understand how the farm operates, what their job is all about, and what the employer expects of them. But family members working on the farm often think they don’t need one for themselves. They’ve been on the farm forever, after all, so they already know what to do. Can’t everybody else just figure that out?

Whether somebody working on the farm is a family member or not isn’t really what matters, says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC). “There needs to be clarity around the work to be done, and without that clarity, there can be duplication, errors, losses, and safety implications,” she says. “You want to make sure that everyone in a workplace is clear on what’s expected to be done, when it’s expected to done, and how it’s expected to be done. It’s a positive situation for everyone when the work requirements are clear.”

Yet even MacDonald-Dewhirst admits having these kinds of conversations can be more awkward with a family member than an employee. “There are lots of dynamics at play in a family and there may be unwritten assumptions that a senior member of the family just expects somebody to know what to do.”

So why stir up a potential hornet’s nest?

Doing a detailed job description for a non-family employee by comparison can seem like a walk in the park.

Make it fair

When a farm has employees and working family members, however, it’s important to treat everyone equally and fairly. A job description can be a valuable tool to define roles and make sure that there are the same expectations of people doing the same job.

Perceptions of fairness are critical when it comes to motivation. If it’s perceived that a family member who has the same job as an employee is treated differently, that can cause a lot of problems within the workplace.

“It will cause problems with not just one employee but the whole culture of the organization,” warns MacDonald-Dewhirst. “That’s certainly an added challenge for family farms. But if you can establish a culture that promotes fairness and transparency, that’s going to create a workplace that’s much more conducive to effective performance for everybody.”

“I don’t think it comes naturally to farmers to be flexible with employees, but it’s something we're working hard at.” – Kristi Burns
“I don’t think it comes naturally to farmers to be flexible with employees, but it’s something we're working hard at.” – Kristi Burns photo: Dave Stobbe

Eight years ago Dustin and Kristi Burns hired their first employee who was not a family member. They quickly realized that human resource management was going to become ever more crucial to them as they grew their integrated group of family farms — Windy Poplars Farm near Wynyard, Sask. — that includes one other sibling, a close family friend, their families, and Dustin’s parents.

“We were able to make use of some Growing Forward funds to do human resource and branding work with a consultant,” says Kristi, who has assumed the lead role in HR management. “It allowed us, as managers, to sit down and say these are our farm goals and values. That gave us a solid sense of who we are and where we want to go with the farm, and I think that’s key if you’re going to be bringing on employees and other people.”

Tight labour market

Agriculture may have lagged behind other industries in recognizing the value of human resource management, but that’s changing as the labour market becomes tighter. Farmers are learning to be more strategic and intentional about their human resource management and staffing, because it’s harder to find people to work on the farm.

“When you can’t fill an open position it becomes the most important thing, and when you find somebody to fill that position, you want to make sure that you keep them there, and that you really motivate them to be as effective as possible,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst, adding, “Build loyalty and commitment so that they don’t leave.”

At Windy Poplars Farm the owner/operators of the farm group have all sat down together and developed job descriptions and figured out a strategy for recruiting and retaining employees.

“HR is such an important, emerging piece on farms,” says Kristi. The strategy, she explains, is “to offer really meaningful employment and find a good farm/life balance for not only the owner/operators but our employees as well, and try to make it sustainable for them to be here.”

The farm has implemented an employee benefits program and it offers educational opportunities. They hold regular Monday morning meetings that bring all the owners and employees together to discuss the work plan for the week and address any issues or concerns.

“We do wage reviews and employee reviews twice a year, and that really fosters an opportunity for communication and feedback,” says Kristi. “We have lunch with our employees every day, and I think that’s one of the things that’s helped us build a good working relationship with them. They feel that they are part of a family farm and that there’s a place for them here. They’re not somehow apart because they’re not related. I think they’re aware of our family and our kids on the farm, and they’re much more careful with our assets, with our equipment and with our buildings because it’s not just a job. They feel connected.”

Everyone needs time off sometimes

It’s also important to be flexible with employees — and other family members — and to understand that they also have a life beyond the farm. “I don’t think it comes naturally to farmers to be flexible with employees but it’s something we’re working hard at,” says Kristi. “If we have an employee with a family member that is ill or someone that needs to be in a wedding party in September, we can’t say, ‘Well, you have to work, we’re harvesting.’ We have to be able to say we’ll have enough people and resources in place so you can go. A very good way to get rid of your employees is to be inflexible and treat them as if they have exactly on the line what you have on the line. We are certainly very mindful of that.”

But it’s just as important that family members working on the farm stay motivated and are where they want to be, rather than feeling obligated to a job they really don’t want. “Whether they’re family members or not, you want them to want to be there, to be excited to be working on the farm, it’s their first choice. They’re going to do better if that’s the kind of commitment that they have to the business,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst.

x photo: Dave Stobbe

New roles for family members

Rather than writing formal job descriptions for the family members, the Burns’s farm has gone through an exhaustive process of defining and documenting the roles and responsibilities of each person involved. These have evolved naturally over time, and must be fluid enough to allow the flexibility they need to run a complex operation.

“We have to be adaptable from year to year,” says Dustin. “We need a flexible management team as far as what they’re willing to do. The key for us is not to create categories or pigeonhole anyone, but to identify the task, how we’re going to solve that task, and what our resources are, especially our people resources to deal with those challenges as they arise.”

One thing the family is very conscious of is abiding by the standards they expect of their workforce, which vary between 10 and 12 depending on the season.

“Historically, as a family, it’s been — weather’s coming, we have to get out there and get it done now, but we’ve had to shift that focus because whether or not we feel that’s something that we can do as the owners, we can’t expect that of our employees,” says Dustin. “We’ve had to slow down and make sure that we model safety as a priority and quality control. We’d rather someone has to wait at the other end than have people rushing around and causing an accident, or being hard on equipment.”

As family farms grow and as more non-family members get injected into the team, it becomes even more important to be open, fair and transparent about everything that you do, says MacDonald-Dewhirst. “I can’t stress that enough because people will leave their jobs — even if they are family members — if they don’t perceive that there’s fairness in the workplace.”

Producer input on National Agricultural Occupational Framework

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) recently asked producers to provide their input to help develop a National Agricultural Occupational Framework. The framework provides tools such as detailed job descriptions for different segments of the agricultural industry, which each farm operation can then customize to suit its own needs.

CAHRC sought input from producers from different industry segments, including cow/calf producer Jill Burkhardt. “We were asked to assign what we felt were appropriate tasks for different positions on the farm, so for an entry level employee, a more seasoned employee, a foreman, manager and owner/operator,” says Burkhardt, who farms with husband Kelly, and father-in-law Gary on their fifth-generation farm near Gwynne, Alta.

“As an example, you wouldn’t have an entry level person mixing feed rations; they would be more likely to feed the cows and perform more assisted, supervised tasks,” Burkhardt explains. “But a seasoned employee who had more of a farm background could mix rations and would be doing more of the day-to-day tasks, while a foreman would be making more daily decisions with help from the manager. So we were looking at a hierarchical chain of command and trying to determine what tasks fit into each role.”

Now, with their son, 10-year-old Connley, beginning to help out on the farm, Burkhardt says the framework will be a useful guideline as he progresses in his role.

“I look at it as an evaluation process. As my son is growing up on the farm it will give us a way to gauge what he’s capable of doing, what he’s done, what roles is he fulfilling now, and the roles he’s ready to move into,” she says. “I can see applying the framework as a guide to help him mature on the farm and move up in his different roles and responsibilities.”

Burkhardt sees great value in the National Agricultural Occupational Framework documents and tools — which should be available on the CAHRC website soon. “It will be a great resource, and even if people don’t write actual job descriptions, it will be a great online tool to be able to assess what position a person could occupy or is occupying on the farm,” says Burkhardt.

Resources for the farm

The following resources are available from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council website:

  • The recently released National Agricultural Occupational Framework provides detailed tools such as job descriptions for different segments of the agricultural industry that can be customized to reflect the needs of each farm operation.
  • AgriJobMatch is an online job board for the agricultural industry that also has customizable job advertisement and job description templates.
  • The AgriHRToolKit is a downloadable kit that offers instructions and tools about how to do HR better for agricultural producers and farm managers. Online access is $99 a year.

Effective HR

If your farm is struggling to figure out the roles and jobs, Dick Wittman, a farmer and consultant from Idaho, offers a practical solution in his guidebook “Building Effective Farm Management Systems.” The case study in chapter five really brings it home with ways to deal with conflicts and how to write job descriptions for select positions by looking at what the farm needs first. It includes worksheets, tasks and a clear way to figure out who is responsible for what on a multiple-person family farm and even how they should be compensated. The guidebook can be downloaded at

Tips for writing a job description

What do you need to think about before you sit down and write a job description? Here are tips from Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council:

  1. Forget whether the job description is for a current or prospective employee or a family member. There should be no difference in the job description for either.
  2. Make sure you have identified what your values, mission and goals are. Who are you, what do you want to achieve and what’s important to your organization?
  3. Think about and identify all the tasks and then document in detail all aspects of the work that needs to be performed for the job from end to end. You may be surprised at the length of the list.
  4. Document how you want each task done and when. Don’t forget about tasks or aspects of the job that only need to be done less frequently but are still critical to the position.
  5. Write down the expectations you have for the person doing that job. Include specific skills, knowledge and educational requirements, but also underlying critical competencies (softer skills) that reflect the values of the organization and will ensure they are a good fit and stay motivated. These could include good communication skills, sharing the organization’s core values, or respecting diversity in the workplace.

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Angela Lovell

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