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Become an Employer of Choice

Helping employees thrive is key to retaining reliable workers.

Finding and keeping employees who are a good fit for your farm can, of course, be challenging in today’s tight job market. There are steps you can take to increase the odds of finding and retaining those individuals who make a good match for you.

Becoming an employer of choice in a competitive job market is key. 

“Finding employees who are seeking jobs on farms is getting harder by the minute,” says Jennifer Blazek, University of Wisconsin Extension dairy and livestock agent. “Part of that has to do with the culture of today’s younger generations. They simply don’t want to work on a farm.”

For dairy farmers in particular, who have relied heavily on immigrant employees, the hiring challenges are becoming critical. The pool of immigrant workers is dwindling, with alternative replacement candidates few and far between.

“Farmers are drawing from a pool of job candidates from within their own area,” says Blazek, who works with dairy farmers looking to improve their skills as employers. “Farmers are competing with each other for the same local labor pool. These local farmworkers tend to gravitate toward those farm businesses that have acquired a reputation for being an employer of choice.”

Following are five steps you can take to become the kind of employer who is sought after by job candidates seeking meaningful work.

1. Lead rather than manage.

“Managers deal with logistics and physical operations,” says Blazek. “Leaders are the glue that holds it all together. Leadership is an all-encompassing term for skills such as communication and emotional intelligence – meaning our level of understanding of ourselves as well as of other people.”

Leadership also involves self-management, having empathy for oneself and others, possessing the ability to listen actively, and having an understanding of what triggers stress.

“How leadership skills play out varies from farm to farm because each farm and each farm family is unique,” says Blazek.

2. Be aware of the key motivators of human behavior.

Offering external incentives – such as wages, benefits, bonuses, and time off – goes only so far in recruiting and retaining employees who become fully engaged in their work. Employees’ level of engagement in their work, of course, determines their awareness of what’s going on around them and their willingness to go the extra mile and to tend carefully to the details of their work.

Engaged workers tend to feel a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose in their work. Thus, they are more committed to their employment.

Internal rather than external motivation is the key to engagement in work. Core inner motivators of behavior are a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

“Having a measure of autonomy in the workplace gives people the sense that they have the competency to make decisions on their own,” says Blazek.

“A sense of competence comes from feeling as if they have the knowledge and the training to do a job well. An employer’s training can build workers’ sense of competence,” she says.

Employees’ sense of relatedness in the workplace comes from the feeling that they can communicate with  or relate to their employer and coworkers. Relatedness is furthered by feelings of being valued.

3. Do a self-analysis.

Determining your primary leadership style points to ways you might modify your habits to help you retain employees who are seeking to engage in their work.

“An encouraging leader is one who is in tune with the needs of employees,” says Blazek. “Such a leader encourages learning and engages workers in the process of learning and accomplishing a task.

“Opposite of that is a coercive leader who issues commands,” she says. “That kind of leadership works in a crisis, but if you use it all the time, employees who need a sense of autonomy feel devalued and feel that you don’t trust them to follow a protocol.”

On the other hand, a democratic leader seeks input from employees.

Also take stock of your ability to listen and your willingness to communicate with others.

Taking time, too, to think about and to identify the culture of your farm business helps you choose employees who are a good match for that culture and who are able to identify with it or buy into it.

“The culture of a farm reflects the values of the farm family members, their work ethic, and their purpose in living and working as they do,” says Blazek. “You might ask yourself how well you reflect that culture. Because no matter what the working conditions are, employees will associate the farm’s culture with the owner.”

4. Do a job analysis.

Decide what tasks you want new employees to do and the skills and aptitudes they must have in order to do the work. Decide whether or not some skills are best learned through your own on-farm training.

Consider how you might build into the job description activities or work components that give employees opportunities to experience  key inner motivators of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. 

For example, including the monitoring of herd health in a milking position could bring a measure of autonomy to a routine job where milking protocols are fixed. Or, meeting weekly with employees to discuss job performance, work progress, problems, and farm goals could give employees a sense of relatedness.

A condensed job analysis gives you a position description you can then use for posting online or advertising in print.

5. Interview candidates carefully.

Besides sharing with screened applicants the details of the job analysis and its components, you might share your leadership style, the culture of your farm, and the vision you have for your business and its broader purpose.

Give job candidates a farm tour and consider engaging them in a task included in the position description.

You might consider asking why they want to work on this farm. 

Candidates’ answers might reveal whether or not they have the desire and capability to become fully engaged in the work and internalize the culture of your farm. 

You stand to gain more stable and motivated employees as a result.


Ask questions that relate to the behaviors, skills, experience, and motivation applicants need to meet the job requirements.

Avoid questions that could make your business vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit. These include questions relating to age; race, ethnicity, or color; gender or sex; country of national origin or birthplace; religion; disability; and marital, family, or pregnancy status.


Jennifer Blazek


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