Peer-to-Peer Labor Management Training for Diversified Organic Vegetable Producers

Progress report for GNC20-303

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2020: $14,873.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipients: University of Wisconsin-Madison; University of Wisconsin-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Michael Bell
Dept. of Community and Environmental Sociology, U. of Wisconsin-Madison
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Project Information

Summary:

     This project, entitled Peer-to-Peer Labor Management Training Program for Diversified Organic Vegetable Producers, will address farmers’ complex labor management needs. As hired labor has become an integral part of the organic vegetable industry, diversified organic vegetable producers increasingly draw connections between their ability to attract and retain qualified employees and the long-term sustainability of their farms. However, many feel they lack the labor management and human resources skills necessary to become excellent employers and have expressed their interest in and need for this training.

     This project will increase diversified organic vegetable producers’ understanding and use of labor management principles, practices, and tools. As more prepared and confident employee managers, farmers will be better positioned to not only attract and retain skilled workers, but also strengthen their financial viability and improve their quality of life. Farm employees also stand to benefit as farmers establish systems and policies that promote and maintain a professionalized labor experience and a healthy workplace culture.

     In order to achieve these outcomes, the project team will collaborate with a five-member Farmer Core Team (FCT) to develop a peer-to-peer labor management training program. This Becoming the Employer of Choice (BTEC) framework will provide foundational knowledge, highlight pre-existing labor management resources, and incorporate farm-level tools and practices that FCT members will first vet on their own farms. A series of remote and in-person meetings with facilitate this work, with project partners and FCT members co-delivering the first BTEC training in early 2022. The establishment of a lasting community of practice will reinforce these efforts, providing longer-term support to farmers interested in strengthening their labor management practices.  

     Evaluation efforts will include surveys and individual check-ins with FCT members in order to measure how their knowledge, awareness, attitudes, and practices change over the course of this project. Pre- and post-surveys will capture similar changes among farmers who participate in the BTEC training. I will also survey conference presentation attendees in order to gauge if and how they might interact with this project’s outputs.

     Farmers have identified labor management training as something they are not only interested in, but something they view as a necessity. This project will work with farmers and other stakeholders to create a peer-to-peer education and training program that reflects and meets these needs, as well as a lasting community of practice to support farmers over the longer term.

Project Objectives:

     Learning outcomes: Diversified organic vegetable producers who serve on the Farmer Core Team (FCT) or attend the Becoming the Employer of Choice (BTEC) training session will increase their awareness and understanding of labor management principles, best practices, and related tools. In turn, this foundational knowledge will assist them in strengthening their labor management skills and bolstering the sense of confidence and preparedness they bring to their roles as employee managers. Meanwhile, I expect my own awareness to deepen, especially in relation to understanding farmers’ complex labor management needs and the value of addressing this through a peer-to-peer approach.  

     Action outcomes: Farmers who serve on the FCT and who participate in the BTEC program will increase their application of labor management practices and tools on their farms. Producers will be empowered to take an intentional and strategic—and perhaps creative—approach to this work. I anticipate that these farmers will apply between 1 to 5 new practices or tools on their farms. Producers will also participate in the broader community of practice this project aims to establish, which will reinforce both learning and action outcomes. By implementing new skills and practices and with support from the community of practice, farmers will be in a better position to achieve longer-term outcomes, like a more stable and qualified workforce, stronger financial viability, and a higher quality of life. Meanwhile, farm employees will benefit through the establishment of systems and policies that promote and maintain a professionalized labor experience and a healthy workplace culture.

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

Close collaboration between a 3-member project team and an 8-member Farmer Core Team (FCT) has driven this project and has ensured that farmers’ needs and priorities have remained at the center of our work. We have collected data using a mixed-methods approach, primarily using surveys and formal and informal discussions with FCT members and training participants.

Module Revision

A core goal of this project has been to modify the 7-module Becoming the Employer of Choice (BTEC) labor management training program from a resource that serves dairy farmers to one that specifically meets the needs of diversified vegetable producers. In February 2021, the Project Team delivered the original dairy-facing modules to the FCT over the course of two days,  gathering feedback – through open discussion as well as targeted questions - on how the content might be adjusted in order to serve vegetable producers. And, as another core goal of this project has been to facilitate farmer-to-farmer discussion and learning, FCT members’ exposure to the training served as an important first step in preparing them to eventually move into the role of co-trainer on these revised modules.

Over the next several months, the project team integrated this feedback and worked together to revise each BTEC module. Discussions during our February 2021 meeting also led to the development of an entirely new module, Building Intercultural Competence as Farm Employers.

In December 2021, the project team and FCT came back together to deliver and experience the new vegetable-facing modules. During this meeting, farmers on the core team stepped into the co-trainer role, working with a member of the project team to co-deliver content to their peers. Following the delivery of each module, the project team collected additional feedback to guide the project team’s final revisions.

Program Delivery

In January 2022, we launched the Becoming the Employer of Choice labor management training program for diversified vegetable producers, delivering one module each week from January through March to a limited audience of 25 farmers over Zoom. (We limited attendance for each session to 25 farmers, but allowed farmers to enroll in all or some of the modules. Because of that, a total of 37 farmers attended these sessions over the course of the program delivery.) During each delivery, the project team made note of both unmet needs as well as innovative or creative approaches farmers were taking to specific issues or challenges. This information may inform further adjustments to the modules, the creation of new modules, or the creation of new resources.

Following each session, participants were asked to complete an evaluation to assess their learning and identify any changes or actions they plan to take as a result of the session. We will survey attendees in fall 2022 to capture specific impacts the BTEC training has had on certain areas of their lives and businesses, including (but not limited to) labor retention, financial viability, quality of life, confidence as employers, and newly implemented labor management practices and tools.

Farmer Core Team Self-Assessment

Throughout the course of this project, we’ve also been working with members of the FCT to capture changes they have made or experienced, from their labor management practices and the tools they have in place, to their attitudes, behaviors, and confidence as employers. We have been collecting this data through formal surveys, including a pre-survey as the project got underway, a mid-point survey, and – in winter 2023 – a post-survey. We will be sharing this information with the FCT as well as with a broader audience.

Research results and discussion:

Of the 37 individuals who participated in the spring BTEC launch, a majority indicated that their knowledge, attitudes, and practices have or would change as a result of attending these sessions.

  • 100 % of individuals indicated that their labor management practices would change either “somewhat” (77%) or “a great deal” (23%)
  • 93% of individuals indicated that their attitudes about labor management topics changed either “somewhat” (71%) or “a great deal” (22%)
  • On a scale of 1-5, farmers ranked their knowledge of session topics at 2.89 before delivery and 4.25 after delivery.

We also asked farmers to reflect on and share what they planned to do as a result of each session. Responses were wide ranging but tended to fall into two distinct camps – one being focused on taking concrete action (like drafting position descriptions or an employee manual), and the other being tied to making space for intentional reflection, planning, and action (like thinking about how to incorporate different leadership styles into the workday or being mindful of inherent biases and language used on the farm). As mentioned above, we plan to survey participants in fall 2022 to capture concrete ways in which this training has impacted farmers’ attitudes, practices, and behaviors as employers.  

As we anticipated, another major theme to come out of this work is the impact these sessions have had on peer-to-peer connection and learning. As one Wisconsin-based farmer shared, “This program has been a huge eye-opener and has helped me shape how I want to interact with my employees. I can’t say how amazing it’s been to hear everyone else’s stories - how you’re dealing with things and how you’re interacting with your employees. I feel so thankful for this community.”

We are eager to continue supporting this connection through a lasting community of practice. During session evaluations, we asked farmers what they wanted as a next step in this work following the conclusion of the program launch. In the short-term, and based on farmer input, we are hosting monthly “Let’s Talk Labor” gatherings for farmers who have attended at least one of the BTEC sessions. Farmers set the topic for each one-hour session, and the project team facilitates. Our internal goal for these sessions is for farmers to strengthen their connection to one another, building relationships and long-term peer support in the area of positive labor management practices.

Participation Summary
125 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

20 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
11 Online trainings
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

125 Farmers
51 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

As of April 2022:

Curricula, Factsheets, or Educational Tools:

  • 8 Becoming the Employer of Choice (BTEC) modules on the following topics:
  • 12 supporting resources to complement BTEC modules and available to farmers who participate in the program
  • In progress: two additional BTEC modules and complementary resources

 

Online Trainings:

National Field School – October 2021

  • Janes Ugoretz, Strader, and Bishop delivered the BTEC module “Developing a Motivated Workforce.”

BTEC Spring 2022 Launch – January through March, 2022

  • Members of the Project Team and Farmer Core Team delivered each of the 8 BTEC modules to an audience of diversified vegetable farmers.

Organic Vegetable Production Conference – February 2022

  • Strader and Noltnerwyss delivered the BTEC module “Building Intercultural Competence for Farm Employers.”

Minnesota Growers’ Network – March 2022

  • Kordet and Strader delivered the BTEC module “Hiring the Right People.”

 

Published Press Articles, Newsletters:

  • Janes Ugoretz published an article in the December 2021 MOSES Organic Broadcaster: Building a labor management training program for farmers, by farmers

 

Journal Articles

  • 1, in progress

 

Workshops/Field Days

MOSES Organic University Workshop, February 2022

  • Bishop, Janes Ugoretz, and Strader delivered three BTEC modules during an all-day MOSES Organic University workshop

MOSES Conference Session, February 2022

  • Bishop and Strader delivered one BTEC module during a 2-hour MOSES session, with support from Janes Ugoretz.

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.