Speaker: Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm
Location: Watauga County Agricultural Center
Description: Alex Hitt has been farming for around 35 years, while simultaneously acting as incubator for many future farmers. His presentation on Labor not only provided information on how to find good help and organize production, but also on how doing the work yourself and keeping a sharp eye on 'quality of life' transforms you into both a better teacher and a better boss.
A snapshot of Peregrine Farms
First things first: Why do people want to work for you?
Alternatively, how can you make your farm more attractive to potential workers?
Some things to take note of: Do you have a diversity of crops and markets? Are you organized, planning your work days in advance; is their structure to the work days? How many employees do you have; do you value one-on-one time? Are you open about all aspects of farm life? Is your business successful?
Remember, most people who want to work on a farm do it because they enjoy some aspect of the work - be it having their hands in the dirt, having a business of their own to manage, or simply because they value self-sufficiency - so be sure that you are prepared to teach, not simply employ their labor.
Finding and Hiring good help:
Be sure to have a job description that is honest. Farm work is dirty, hot, and sometimes back-breaking, so be upfront about what kind of labor candidates should expect. If possible, schedule a face-to-face on-farm interview. As Hitt stated, whether they are able to find your farm and be there on time, tells you a whole lot about what kind of worker they will be.
A few good questions to ask:
As a reference, Hitt said that Peregrine Farm's labor is 19% of their expenses, 38% when the farmers' labor is included. Labor, as Hitt put, is a "glass ceiling"; there is only so much that a farmer can do on their own, but be sure to use your labor efficiently and sparingly as it will be your most expensive input. Always be sure to balance your production and keep a steady flow of labor-on hand rather than having peaks and valleys in productivity.
Gathering 'round for the big talk.
Teaching and doing the work:
The best teachers are the ones who know intimately their field of study, so never expect an employee to do a task you have never done yourself. Have a daily plan, as well as a plan B or C in case of the weather or unexpected events, and stick to it! Be able to explain why a certain task is done the way that it is (ie what makes it a more efficient process), but be open to being taught yourself. Teaching, just like work, is a give and take, and someone else may be able to approach an issue from a different angle than what you may be accustomed to.
You may also find it helpful to have an experienced worker act as a task leader to help you out - just be sure, however, that the employee has just one point person. This will avoid confusion or delays in getting the day's work done. It may also be a good idea to allot a bit of "decompression" time at the start of the day. This way everyone can get together in a communal setting, chat a bit and share any exciting news before work so that the day itself will ultimately be more productive.
Sharing a good meal and good conversation: (left to right) Amy (Springhouse Farms), Kara (Full Moon Farm), Matt (Blackburn Community Gardens), Cory (New Life Farm), Alex Hitt (Peregrine Farm).
Other aspects to keep in mind:
A year is never enough to experience the full cycle of farm life, so think of ways that you can keep your best employees coming back season after season.
In addition, there is only so much work that can be done, so if you decide to allow volunteers to come out, keep it to a minimum and have very specific tasks or times to occupy them. A group or individual coming out to experience a day-in-the-life is all well and good, and can even be exceedingly helpful in times of big jobs demanding excess work, but a separation between their assistance and daily tasks that must be done can be helpful in avoiding confusion, lags in productivity, or a decrease in hours for paid employees who depend on that work.
Another situation to think of is that of hiring couples; it isn't necessarily a poor idea, but be wary of fighting or splits that may leave you lacking a worker for the remainder of a season.
About Peregrine Farm
Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farm are known to many as exceptional growers and mentors. They first moved to North Carolina in 1980, starting Peregrine Farm in 1982. Now, they grow 3-4 acres of vegetables and flowers, alongside blueberries and Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys. Both Alex and Betsy work full-time on their farm, while typically hiring two people each season. Their production is geared toward the Carrboro Farmers' Market, and their produce and flowers can also be found at Weaver Street Market and restaurants throughout the Triad. You can learn more about their story and farm, here.
Written by Courtney Elks, Intern with Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture's CRAFT program.