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Keep Key Talent on Your Farm’s Team

In tight times, invest in employee satisfaction.

When the alarm clock rings, Dennis Sutherland awakens to a full day of farmwork. He wouldn’t have it any other way. Sutherland has worked for three generations of the Hollis family on Lanehaven Farms near Waterloo, Iowa. He was first hired by Gordon Hollis 47 years ago as part-time help. When Gordon and his son, Curt, grew the farm to a size large enough to hire their first full-time employee, “They made an offer I couldn’t refuse,” says Sutherland.

He has never looked back. “People ask me why I still get up and go to work every day,” he says. “I tell them, to me, it’s fun.”

In the early years, working alongside Gordon and Curt, he took care of the hogs, maintained machinery, and built hog buildings – from the cement foundation up. Over almost five decades, he’s worked in field operations, primary grounds management, and filled in as an electrician, plumber, and welder.

When Blake Hollis, Curt’s son, graduated from Iowa State University in 1996, his return to the farm fueled an expansion of grain-handling systems led by Sutherland.

Sally Hollis joined husband Blake in the family farm business full time in 2013. She focuses on finance and human resources.

Labor issues

During Sutherland’s 47-year-career at Lanehaven Farms, the labor landscape of American agriculture has been transformed. With the trend toward larger farms, 30% to 35% of workers on U.S. farms today are hired, according to the Farm Foundation. 

Sutherland’s long tenure is far from the norm in agriculture today. As reliance on ag employees has grown, retaining a stable workforce has become a core human resource issue on farms. 

“We’re in the midst of a talent struggle in agriculture,” says Lori Culler, founder and owner of AgHires, a national agricultural recruiting company based in Michigan. “With the national unemployment rate at an all-time low, we’re not the only industry that’s facing challenges finding and attracting top-quality candidates.

“Studies show that 89% of employers believe their employees leave for higher pay, but only 12% actually leave because they want more money.” 

This means that ag employers must work harder to recruit and retain the best employees.

Culture and values

Lanehaven Farms’ leadership team, including owners and employees, meets weekly and participates in three off-site meetings annually to improve farm performance, maximize job satisfaction, and minimize turnover. “We have to be intentional about improving performance in all areas in tight times,” says Sally Hollis.

A major emphasis is placed on defining the farm’s culture (its values, behaviors, and communication styles). “Your culture drives the type of employees who work well together,” Hollis says. “We use our core values to hire the right people. If employees don’t fit, they won’t last.”

Once the right team is in place, Lanehaven applies a laser focus to retention. “We believe the key to employee retention is employee engagement,” Hollis says. “We don’t just want to retain people; we want to engage them. We want them to feel connected.”

Hollis offers three keys to a work culture that fosters employee engagement:

1. Caring 

2. Communicating 

3. Growing 

Culture drives productivity

Lanehaven Farms conducts Stay Interviews, confidential one-on-one interviews between managers and employees. “We want to know what motivates them, and what would make them want to stay,” she says. “We don’t rebut anything they say – we just listen and ask clarifying questions.” 

Informal give-and-take is a linchpin of daily communication. “One of our cultural norms is Feedback is a Gift,” Hollis says. “We regularly ask, listen, and give feedback.”

Sutherland agrees. “So much of farming is completely different today than 30 to 40 years ago, but communication is the same,” he says. “I’ve had plenty of ideas that probably weren’t too good, but when good ideas come along, it all goes back to communication. I talk, they listen. They talk, I listen.”

Despite best efforts to communicate, things still can go wrong. “We all come to work to get the job done,” Hollis says. “If something doesn’t go as planned, we try not to point fingers. We aren’t perfect either. Instead, we ask, ‘Where did our process fail?’ ”

Performance reviews are another avenue to show appreciation, provide feedback, and reinforce a positive culture,” Hollis says. “We use our core values to conduct annual reviews as a formal way to listen and provide meaningful communication.” 

Stay Interviews also help to reinforce the third key retention strategy: Developing and growing employees.

“At the end of the day, it’s more than just a job,” Hollis says. “This has to be a place where all employees can learn and improve in areas that interest them.”

Fostering a sense of family  

Lanehaven’s employee team ranges in age from 20 to 73. At age 20, Wyatt Samuelson is five decades younger than Sutherland. But they have more in common than you might imagine. For instance, they both love restoring old tractors, and they share a love of farming. Samuelson is also Sutherland’s grandson. He’s worked part time at Lanehaven Farms since high school. Today, he’s a junior at Iowa State University studying ag systems technology. 

As a member of Generation Y, Samuelson values experiences. He applied his AgLeader intern experience when he helped trouble-shoot a direct-injection system at Lanehaven. This summer, he’ll intern at Deere & Company in Moline.

In addition to these learning experiences, he also appreciates opportunities to have fun. 

“During harvest and planting, I’ve been known to crack corny jokes over the radio,” Hollis says. Lanehaven Farms also has celebrated Ugly Sweater Day, Harvest Hump Day, and Fun Fact Fridays.

“Some jobs might not always be fun, but the people can be fun,” Samuelson says. “One of the best things about working here is getting to work with Grandpa.” 

Few employees are so lucky. However, a multigenerational team may help foster a family-oriented culture.

“Just the other day, one of the younger guys came to me,” Sutherland says. “He said, ‘I need somebody with at least 20 years of experience to help me do this.’ ” 

Are generational differences less pronounced in agriculture? “Farming is somewhat unique,” Hollis says. “It’s possible that there’s more respect and appreciation for different generations and their contributions. At our last Halloween party, one of our Hawkeye Community College students dressed up like Dennis: overalls, a plaid shirt, and gloves in his back pocket.”

She adds, “Dennis has a humble heart and a strong work ethic. He’s a team player. We try to reward and thank people, especially when they’re helping strengthen our core values and culture.”

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