Final report for GNC20-303
Summary. Hired labor has become an integral part of the diversified vegetable industry, and 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 therefore expressed their interest in and need for this training and support. This project has focused on addressing farmers’ complex labor management needs by working with farmers and other stakeholders to create a peer-to-peer education and training program that reflects and meets these needs. As more prepared and confident employee managers, farmers are better positioned to attract and retain skilled workers – which may in turn have positive impacts on their financial viability and their overall 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.
Research Approach. In order to achieve these outcomes, the project team collaborated 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 provided foundational knowledge, highlighted pre-existing labor management resources, and incorporated farm-level tools and practices that FCT members vetted on their own farms. A series of remote and in-person meetings facilitated this work, with the program being finalized in early 2022. Project partners and FCT members co-delivered BTEC trainings in early 2022 and early 2023.
- Integrating peer-to-peer learning is not just effective – it’s a training approach that farmers greatly value and it lends credibility to programming.
- Providing ongoing opportunities for peer support and connection following the completion of formal training delivery by hosting monthly gatherings has helped to reinforce BTEC content while also creating a lasting community of support.
- Current and aspiring hired farm managers are also eager for labor management training and support – and farm employers want to connect employees with these resources as a means of supporting career advancement and labor stability. (This fed into the creation of a parallel training program called Training and Education for Aspiring Managers.)
Adopted Farmer Actions.
- In 2021, FCT members implemented an average of 3 new labor management practices on their farms. In 2022, that number increased to an average of 4.3 new practices.
- BTEC training participants surveyed in late 2022 reported implementing an average of 4.6 new labor management practices since attending BTEC.
Feedback related to the BTEC training program has suggested that the practical content paired with peer-to-peer connection and ongoing support has created a program that farmers value and recommend to their peers. One participant shared, "BTEC is what you need to help you get ready for the next growing season. And for us, committing to the entire series was so valuable for our farm. Not only did we have the benefit of going through this experience with a cohort, but we learned so much from other farmers and what they brought to each session. Co-managers or spouses who farm together would benefit double-fold in doing this course together because it helps you clarify and navigate managerial styles and make meaningful changes to your farm systems.” Meanwhile, another participant emphasized the impact BTEC has had on their ability to support their employees. “Nothing replaces the value of managing your crew well during the season - making sure you're taking care of them, supporting them, listening to them. You can't just leave that work to the end of the season and expect people to come back. BTEC has been such a transformational tool for me as a farmer and an employer. It's helped me keep this work front and center even as the season gets super busy.”
This project had two primary objectives:
1) To strengthen diversified organic vegetable farmers’ employee management skills.
2) To improve diversified organic vegetable farmers’ ability to attract, train, and retain employees.
Learning outcomes: We anticipated that diversified organic vegetable producers who served on the Farmer Core Team (FCT) or who attended the Becoming the Employer of Choice (BTEC) training program would increase their awareness and understanding of labor management principles, best practices, and related tools. In turn, we assumed this foundational knowledge would assist them in strengthening their labor management skills and bolstering the sense of confidence and preparedness they bring to their roles as employee managers. Our program evaluation data suggests that overall, these outcomes came to fruition. Moving into this work, I also expected 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. I have learned so much from the farmers I’ve worked with through this project, and that learning has fed into the creation of a number of additional resources aimed at supporting farmers in the labor management space.
Action outcomes: As be began this work, we assumed that farmers who served on the FCT and who participated in BTEC would increase their application of labor management practices and tools on their farms, and that in so doing, they’d feel more and more empowered to take an intentional and strategic—and perhaps creative—approach to this work. We forecasted that these farmers would apply between 1 to 5 new practices or tools on their farms – which was confirmed through our evaluation data. By participating in the broader community of practice following formal BTEC delivery, we aimed to help producers continue to build upon their labor-related successes with the understanding that this might help them maintain forward momentum.
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.
BTEC Session Revision. A core goal of this project has been to modify the 7-session 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 sessions to the Farmer Core Team (FCT) over the course of two days, gathering feedback on how the content might be adjusted in order to serve vegetable producers through both open discussion as well as targeted questions. 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 sessions.
Over the next several months, the project team integrated this feedback and worked together to revise each BTEC session. Discussions during our February 2021 meeting also led to the development of two entirely new sessions, Building Intercultural Competence as Farm Employers and Becoming an Ethical H-2A Employer.
In December 2021, the project team and FCT came back together to deliver and experience the new vegetable-facing sessions. 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 session, the project team collected additional feedback to guide the project team’s final revisions.
Program Delivery. In January 2022, we launched the BTEC labor management training program for diversified vegetable producers, delivering one session 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 sessions. 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 directly informed further adjustments to the sessions as well as the creation of new resources. We repeated this process in the winter of 2023, though we did not limit registration numbers this time and welcomed a larger group of participants from across the country.
Following each session, the project team asked participants to complete an evaluation to assess their learning and identify any changes or actions they plan to take as a result of the session. Over the course of this grant period, we reached a total of 275 farmers. Of those farmers, 246 received evaluations, 131 completed those evaluations, and 93 names specific recommended practices they intended to adopt.
Farmer Core Team Self-Assessment. Throughout the course of this project, we also worked with members of the FCT to capture changes they made or experienced – from their labor management practices and the tools they have in place, to their attitudes, behaviors, and confidence as employers. We collected 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. From 2021 to 2023, FCT members reported an increase in their overall labor management skills and their ability to positively shape their farm culture. They also reported receiving more support from their peers and from farming organizations on labor-management topics than when our work on this grant began. Major successes FCT members shared ranged from increased delegation and improved retention to more effectively identifying employees’ strengths and improving the hiring and firing process.
Of the 131 individuals who participated in BTEC trainings and completed an evaluation, a majority indicated that their knowledge, attitudes, and practices have or would change as a result of attending these sessions.
- 99% of individuals indicated that their labor management practices would change either “somewhat” (66%) or “a great deal” (33%)
- 91% of individuals indicated that their attitudes about labor management topics changed either “somewhat” (57%) or “a great deal” (34%)
- On a scale of 1-5, farmers ranked their knowledge of session topics at 2.85 before delivery and 4.19 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 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 2022. In the short-term, and based on farmer input, we are hosting monthly peer support gatherings for farmers who have attended at least one BTEC session. Farmers set the topic for each one-hour session, and the project team facilitates the discussion. 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. After some initial challenges with attendance (we tried hosting these in the morning and during the lunch hour), we’ve found success in holding them during the evenings from 6:30-7:30pm Central Time. During the more stressful summer months, we are keeping the discussion open instead of focusing on a specific topic. This encourages farmers to bring their most pressing, in-season labor-related challenges and questions to the group.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Over the course of the grant period, we delivered the full BTEC program to a public audience twice. We were also invited by various organizations to deliver portions of the program through conferences and other gatherings – both in-person and online, and held in WI, MN, IL, and PA. To complement the formal BTEC sessions, the project team and the FCT worked together to create a complementary suite of resources, including templates and examples that farmers can use to advance their work in this area.
Sharing and delivering BTEC at farmer-facing conferences has been an effective outreach strategy, further reinforced by our expanding community of practice. Meanwhile, writing about the program through newsletters and blogposts (and a forthcoming journal article) has helped us connect with a community of farmer educators who can recommend BTEC to the farmers they serve. Creating a webpage has been a valuable tool in terms of our promotional efforts.
This project has sought to help farm owners stabilize their workforces through strengthened labor management practices that contribute to positive work experiences for owners and workers alike. Ultimately, enhancing labor stability has the potential to impact each aspect of sustainability through 1) helping farm owners capture and reinvest cost savings as retention increases and knowledge continues to expand amongst the crew; 2) increasing farm owners’ capacity to make decisions and establish practices that align with their environmental convictions; and 3) creating more space for farm owners to center quality of life considerations in their decision-making processes.
Both our evaluation data and the anecdotes BTEC participants have shared with us suggest that this project has succeeded in establishing a strong foundation that can support farmers as they continue to strengthen their labor management practices on the farm and make progress in the areas articulated above. At the same time – and as one BTEC participant shared – this work takes intentionality and commitment. “I have to say that the course truly did impact how I managed our crew this season! We had several new people this year, so going in with an improved manual, clearer communication strategies and anecdotal advice to fill in the gaps all contributed to a more successful season. I truly value the opportunity to grow our farm into a healthier organism so that everyone working with us feels valued and is motivated. The BTEC training is helping us put these pieces together, and I am looking forward to seeing the rewards pay off over time.” Ultimately, I see this project as one discreet part of a much larger, longer-term effort focused on enhancing the diversified vegetable industry’s ability to support full and robust livelihoods for both farm owners and farm workers.
Farmers are often one another's best teachers, and throughout this grant project, I benefited immensely from that knowledge sharing. While a large part of running a successful production farm comes down to the technical aspects of production, the social aspects of sustainability are often just as critical - and are perhaps just as likely to be overlooked. I came into this work knowing what that meant in broad terms, and I'm stepping out of it with a deep and grounded understanding of just how crucial the human experience is in the long-term viability of individual farms and the industry as a whole. We have a lot of success stories coming out of this work - and yet there is still so much to do. Fortunately, through the countless conversations surrounding this work, we've been able to identify (and begin developing) additional resources and support farmers want - resources that will help them continue to make progress in this space, from providing training and support for hired employees hoping to move into formal leadership positions to concrete tools that farmers can utilize to inform their ever-evolving labor practices. And, underscoring all of this is the very clear need - at least in my experience - to approach this work in partnership with farmers so that the resulting resources have the greatest potential to be valuable and reflective of farmers' needs.
Considering this country's agricultural legacy, the devaluation of labor, and the systemic and structural challenges facing both small farm owners and farmworkers today, it's very easy to become discouraged - to question whether it's actually possible for farmers to experience a well-balanced, truly sustainable career in this industry. We certainly have a long way to go to undo and rebuild a more fair agricultural system overall, but I am hopeful that small undertakings like these paired with more targeted and wide-reaching efforts across multiple scales and sectors will result in incremental changes that will have a positive and direct impact on farmers as we work towards larger change.
In addition to the creation of the Becoming the Employer of Choice (BTEC) labor management training program, this project directly informed the development of two complementary resources that aim to provide direct support around farm labor.
First, NCR-SARE funds supported the design of Farming into the Future by Centering Farmworkers. Informed by farmworkers’ voices, this interactive resource aims to support positive, long-term employment opportunities for workers on diversified vegetable farms. During a time when farm owners are asking how they can attract employees and build long-term working relationships with those individuals, we take a look at four things employees have said they deeply value in a workplace: communication, work environment, opportunities for growth and advancement, and livable wages. Throughout its pages, we share concrete, action-oriented tips and examples that highlight various paths forward - and that will ultimately support strong farm businesses and improved quality of life for everyone working on the farm.
And second, while NCR-SARE funds did not contribute its development, the conversations we had with both farm owners and farmworkers as part of this project identified the demand for a parallel training program aimed at supporting current and aspiring hired farm managers. In order to address this need, we modified and trimmed the BTEC series to create a new 4-session program called Training and Education for Aspiring Managers (TEAMs) which we deliver in partnership with experienced farm managers over Zoom each spring.