Empathy and Flexibility Go a Long Way When Managing Farm Employees

Aug. 1, 2017
Photo of a man in jeans and a white t-shirt taking hay off a red truck loaded with hay.

LONDON, Ohio — Faced with a decades-long struggle to find laborers, farmers can still do a lot to attract and keep their staff and lighten their load with technology.

When the economy is healthy or at least improving, the search for farm employees becomes even more challenging even though farm wages, at $12 on average across Ohio, are well above the state’s minimum wage, said Gustavo Schuenemann, an Ohio State University Extension veterinarian. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the university’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

With farm work being so physically rigorous and requiring long work days, often people opt instead for an 8-hour work day in an office or store, said Schuenemann, who’s also an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine.

Technology may be part of the solution to make up for the scarcity of workers, he said. Smart tractors drive themselves. An automatic feeder can push feed into the animal stalls periodically throughout the day so the animals can reach the food. A robot could even clean and prep a cow for mechanized milking.

However, as useful as it is, technology likely won’t eliminate all staff necessary on a farm, so farmers still need to know how best to manage their staff, said Schuenemann, who will offer advice on managing farm labor during the Farm Science Review on Sept. 19 at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center in London, Ohio.

Schuenemann will speak from noon to 12:20 p.m. as part of the “Ask the Expert” program offered daily at the Review, which is sponsored by the college.

While fair pay and offering health insurance can be a drawing card for employees, the most common complaint Schuenemann hears from farm workers is that they’re poorly managed.

Frequently, farmers and farm managers create work schedules that don’t offer some flexibility and take into consideration the workers’ needs, Schuenemann pointed out. An employee may not want a night shift or a Sunday shift, or he or she may not want or be able to work 12 hours at a time for six or seven days a week, or work on ever-changing shifts. Any resulting discontentment among employees increases the odds that the workers quit, Schuenemann said.

Aggressive-style management rarely works, he said. Farmers need to put themselves in the shoes of their workers because empathy can go a long way toward creating an environment in which employees want to stay.

“A farmer might start out taking care of 200 cattle, but in 15 years, could grow to have 2,000 or more. At that point, he’s managing people, not just cows,” but he might not have the skills needed to manage the staff, Schuenemann said.

“You can find people who know how to work with cows, but it’s difficult to find people who like or know how to manage other people, and that’s an important problem to fix.”

If it isn’t, turnover is inevitable. Some farmers Schuenemann has worked with see over half their employees leave every year.

“They never stop training people,” he said. “It’s a futile cycle. People are leaving and coming, leaving and coming.”

Many times farm employees and their managers don’t communicate with each other often enough, so problems arise and discontentment can grow quickly, Schuenemann said. The farm owner or a manager should meet with employees at least once a week to discuss and resolve any problems, he said.

“If the farmer focuses on managing the work environment, it has a profound impact on everyone’s attitude,” Schuenemann said. “And when attitude goes up, everything gets better without much investment.”

Tickets for the Farm Science Review are $7 online, at OSU Extension county offices and at participating agribusinesses, and are $10 at the gate. Children 5 and under are free. Show hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept 19-20 and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 21.



Alayna DeMartini


Gustavo Schuenemann