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Growing great workers

Agriculture.com Staff 03/01/2006 @ 2:09pm

Employees Jerry Fiene, Dale Nelson, and David Engelbrecht (left to right) review the new baler manual with Paul Heins (far right). Informal employee meetings often take place at the work site or over a meal at the kitchen table.

Paul Heins hired his first employee three years after he and his wife, Cindy, graduated from college and returned to his parents' dairy farm near Higginsville, Missouri.

"When I review my college materials today, I realize I didn't understand what I was being taught," he says. "I've made more than my share of mistakes over the past 20 years when it comes to personnel. Over time, I believe we've developed a culture of win-win for employee and employer. No other arrangement has long-term positive results."

The Heinses' herd has grown from 45 to 100 cows, and their 200-acre farm has increased to 1,400 owned and rented acres. Their need for hired labor has expanded to four full-time employees and several part-time employees.

"We've got a really good team today," Heins says. "Each one contributes a lot to the farm's success."

The Heinses know there's a bottom-line payoff for investing in human resource management on the farm. As midsize businesses grow, many other family farmers are turning to nonfamily employees. This requires them to cultivate a new set of skills.

"Many producers haven't worked off-farm and have little training," says Bernie Erven, professor emeritus, agricultural economics, Ohio State University. "This isn't about fertilizer or machinery - it's about the personal skills to build a positive business culture.

"It's OK if they don't know about these skills. But it's not OK to continue not to know. They must tell themselves, 'I can learn to interview. I can learn performance evaluations.' They'd be more comfortable if they didn't have to do it - if it didn't mean changing."

He compares good human resource management to a three-legged stool:

Employer attitude toward employees

Human resource management skills

Human resource practices

"But the single most important factor isn't how to motivate, compensate, or write job descriptions - it's who are your employees?" Erven says. "Over time, it's one thing that makes the most difference. Who you hire depends directly on your farm's reputation as a place to work. What it takes to build a good reputation goes directly back to your attitude, skills, and practices."

Heins agrees. "Bernie Erven has had a big influence on our philosophies," he says. "Words alone don't communicate win-win. You have to prove through actions we're all on the same team. As our work culture improves, it's easier to attract good people. The snowball is headed in the right direction."

Erven says farmers typically focus on determining the level of compensation necessary to attract employees.

"Many farmers ask, 'What do I have to pay?' " he says. "The real question is, 'What do I have to pay to be fair?' Compensation needs to be based on whether it's appropriate. Could the employee go elsewhere with the same skills and earn more? Is the employee paid as much as your other employees with similar skills and productivity? Compensation isn't based on how much an employee needs it or wants it."

Heins says that he focuses on other ways to fulfill employee needs.

"You have to find ways of compensating people beyond the monetary," he says. "Employees have different needs. To some, it's being able to take off to see a son play in a ball game or to go with his wife to see the sonogram."

Liz Doornink, who farms with her husband, Todd, near Baldwin, Wisconsin, agrees. She also is a consultant in personnel management.

"Farmers get too caught up in what to pay," she says. "Eighty percent of employees say they want more money. There's only so much you can pay a milker. We offer employees other benefits, such as job training so they can move up the ladder. You have to build a total package, with employee training, recognition, and compensation."

Employees Jerry Fiene, Dale Nelson, and David Engelbrecht (left to right) review the new baler manual with Paul Heins (far right). Informal employee meetings often take place at the work site or over a meal at the kitchen table.

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