The task of finding people to help with your farm work can be broken into two parts: Finding workers, and Filtering the workers you do find. And at the end we talk a bit about interns.
To find folks to help with your workload, here are some ideas that might help.
- Try using a “Help Wanted” sign on your display at market.
- Ask your current workers if they know of anyone else who would like to work at your farm.
- Post a “farm workers wanted” sign at your local college or high school, or in the local laundromat.
- Tell the high school guidance counselor or college summer work program coordinator of your needs.
- Participate in a local “Job Fair” whenever there is one held in or near your community.
- Tell other farmers that you are looking for farm help. They may be able to send some workers your way. Sometimes one worker can find the full time employment they are looking for by working on two different farms, each part time.
Here are some websites where you can look for farm workers.
- Maine Farmworker Exchange, a Facebook page dedicated to connecting farms and farmworkers.
- Organic Volunteers is a website where workers looking for a farm, or farmers looking for workers, can add their information. The site can be searched using many criteria.
- MOFGA’s apprentice program annually attracts hundreds of people looking to work on small farms.
- MOFGA.net is a MOFGA-operated website opened in 2010 which allows farms to post classified ads looking for farm help.
Filtering the workers you do find
Use the right filters: Be careful not to filter your workers by age or sex, not only because it’s cruel and against the law, but also because it’s simply an unwise way to manage your farm. It is all too easy to fall into making false assumptions about what someone is capable of by only looking at their age or sex. Instead, focus on a person’s ability to stay on task, to produce quality work at a good rate, to follow directions, to remember jobs they have been taught, and to ask “What’s next?” as soon as a job is completed.
Golden Workers: You may find some folks with a great work ethic and considerable experience at working on a small farm. These folks are gold! Do what you can to keep them returning year after year. Don’t just use economic incentives such as wages and preferential re-hiring: use praise, involvement in decision making, higher-level responsibilities, asking their opinions, shared meals, flex time options, and repeatedly telling them of their value to the farm.
Poor Work Ethic: You may find an experienced farm worker who nevertheless has a poor work ethic. Sometimes it takes a little while to figure this out, since some poor workers can be great at giving interviews. While you may find a place for folks with poor work ethic, you may also find that they increase your work crew management overhead as well. And they set a poor example for your other workers, and may even generate resentment from them. If you aren’t really desperate for help, it is usually best to let these folks go.
Oldsters: Some of the best workers I’ve ever hired were in their 60’s and 70’s. They have worked in numerous types of jobs during a long life and appreciate an opportunity to have something worthwhile to do at a time when others may think of them as “too old to work.” They have gotten their work pace down to a science, and know how to focus on a job until it’s done. Even if they’ve never done farm work before, you are still hiring “work experience.”
Youngsters: This is a group that is older than “children” and can extend into the mid twenties, depending upon the individual. Typically full of energy and ideals (and sometimes very strongly held opinions!), youngsters can be a great boon to getting the work done. Due to their age and depending upon their previous experience, the development of a good work ethic may still be evolving—you and the other workers will be molding that evolution. Local youngsters provide additional connections to your community. Non-local youngsters (college students, often) can bring cultural influences previously not encountered. Of course youngsters who are still in school will say good-by around the end of August, but may still be able to work a few days in the spring and autumn.
No Shows: One of the few hard rules we ask of our farm workers is that if they are expected to show up at a certain time, that they do show up to work when they said they would. Nothing throws off farm management like having an irregular and unpredictable supply of labor. Repeating no-shows are let go from the work crew, and we tell them that their unpredictability is the reason.
Flex Time: We allow each worker a custom flex time that suits their outside life. This may mean we need to hire two or more workers to make up a full work week, but if they are good, it’s worth it. And flex time may be the “deal maker” that allows them to work for you in the first place. Of course anyone is allowed a morning, afternoon or whole day off, but we ask they let us know of this a few days in advance.
Work for free or trade: You may find people who are willing to work at your farm at least part of the time for no money at all. This may include Uncle Fred who wants to help out for a while, or a community group arriving with a whole group ready to be put to work. Some folks may be looking to trade for food, work to pay off a CSA account, or just come by to help because they want to be part of it all. It can be boon to have such folks, but they may yet fall into one of the above categories, and can be awkward to fire if they aren’t doing well. Since their length of employment may soon be over once their obligation is met, the time it takes to train them may seem wasted unless they can be put to work on easy-to-explain, hard-to-screw-up chores that need doing.
Just in it for the money: While everyone needs to get paid, you will find some workers are not at all interested in why things are done the way they are, they just want to be told what to do. They may do a fine job, but they aren’t really interested in what they are doing. Perhaps they are earning some extra money for clothes, an iPad or a bike, or to help with the family income. Although this attitude may gradually change if you are providing an interesting and educational work environment, some workers will never find the work interesting. They are just trading labor for money. It is wise to recognize this type of worker for their value and for their limitations.
Interns or “apprentices” are folks who are working either for a defined season or indefinitely, and are probably living somewhere on the farm. Being paid a smaller stipend for their work than are the hourly workers, they are the opposite of the “Just in it for the Money” group. Interns are just in it for the experience. The difference between what they are paid and what their work is worth is their “tuition” for a unique learning experience. They are very interested in the “whys” of what’s being done on the farm. They may be planning to start their own farm some day and recognize that internship as the best way to learn the ropes. They may only be planning to homestead and want to learn the basics of plant or animal care. They may be looking to add a really interesting experience to the things they’ve done. And some interns you may even be able to groom into future farm partners.
Interns can be great, and you may remain in touch with them long after they have left the farm. You may learn almost as much from them as they learn from you. However, there are a few caveats.
Just because someone is entering your farm work force as an intern doesn’t mean that they will work out for you. Some interns may be more interested in the “sizzle than the steak” and find that the nitty-gritty of farm work isn’t what they imagined it would be. This means your intern may back out early from your agreed upon length of their stay, or whose final day to look forward to eagerly.
Other interns may have a great enthusiasm for the work but a poorly developed work ethic. They may not stay focused on a job, leave work undone, avoid work they don’t like, only work short hours, take really long breaks, and so on. Do not confuse expressed enthusiasm or interest in your farm with a good work ethic.
Sometimes during the winter months an intern will sound very excited about being at your farm for the summer, only to back out as the season approaches. Be ready for this. Not everyone is equally assured of what they want to do. And not everyone will keep their commitments.
You will also be sharing more of your life with an intern than you do with your hourly workers. When everyone else goes home for the day, the interns are still here. This alone requires some adjustment on your part, regardless of how well you and your intern otherwise mesh. Meals, amount and scheduling of down time, invited friends or partners, laundry, general housekeeping, and other living arrangements are all areas where you both will need to adjust. It’s just part of the package. Be ready for it.