Creative Farm Business Models to Address Employee Hiring, Training, and Management Barriers

Final report for LNE19-386R

Project Type: Research Only
Funds awarded in 2019: $159,988.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2022
Grant Recipient: New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Kevin Cody
New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
Jennifer Hashley
Trustees of Tufts College / New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
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Project Information


Solutions for recruiting, training, compensating, and retaining qualified farm workers are urgently needed. Farmers continually rank labor issues, including skilled worker availability and wages, as the greatest challenge to improved profitability and quality of life. This project aimed to assess novel approaches to support small farmers to attract and retain good workers, minimize their administrative burdens, and create new opportunities for collaboration.  The project presented four business models that could help small farmers across an entire region of the country meet their staffing needs, while at the same time covering administrative tasks from payroll to handling workers' compensation claims.  The models proposed opportunities to guarantee farm workers year-round stability, either by connecting them with off-season jobs or providing them access to unemployment insurance and other benefits. Further, the models explored providing both farm workers and farm owners the opportunity to take on leadership roles, or even invest and earn dividends and potentially support farm owners to capture social values that made their farms more enticing to workers and consumers alike.

Through a series of 17 farm owner and farm worker focus groups held across New England and New York, 104 producers and workers were presented with the four business models and scenarios that introduced proposed "collaborative labor solutions."  After an initial round of producer and worker feedback, the solutions were more specifically refined and referred to as "Entity X" as part of a specific narrative used to solicit a second round of feedback through additional focus groups and a regional survey to a broader group of 74 producers and workers. The solution provided farms across a given region (possibly reaching across multiple states) with an opportunity to pool their resources into a new entity that would recruit and hire workers, distribute them across participating farms, and take care of the legal, financial, administrative, and Human Resources (HR) work involved in employing people. Farm owners would pay this entity an hourly rate per worker, and this would cover wages plus the entity's overhead.  The project examined how farm owners and workers responded to the broader concept of collaborative labor solutions, and to the various forms those solutions could take.

Overall, producers welcomed the idea of simplifying their labor challenges but questioned how a collaborative labor solution would integrate itself with a widely varied group of farms, each used to doing things their own way. Farmers generally liked the idea of outsourcing paperwork responsibilities, but many expressed a reluctance to relinquish control over important farm labor decisions and processes, from hiring to scheduling to pay. The feedback, taken as a whole, is neither an endorsement nor a rejection of collaborative labor solutions. Instead, it opens opportunities to go into greater detail with farmers, evolving individualized proposals to better align with their needs. Ultimately, the diversified world of small farms does not lend itself to a "one-size-fits-all" solution. 

A final report outlines the feasibility of collaborative solutions to labor challenges and proposes a path forward. Over the long term, a sensible path forward is to cultivate more opportunities for communities of farmers to engage in dialogue and support networks for exploring potential collaborative solutions to their farm labor challenges and needs. A new idea such as this that requires a fundamental restructuring of farm labor relationships and needs wide circulation before it has the potential to be accepted broadly. Encouraging further conversations within farmer communities about potential collaborative labor solutions with a specific focus on whether and how farmers might be more willing to accept shared control over labor decisions and processes with other farmers will inform its actual feasibility over time.  A Toolkit to guide farmer discussion across seven key areas of farm labor was developed and shared broadly through a webinar and posted to an online Farm Labor resource page. 

Findings from the focus groups and surveys also revealed that an initial step for some farmers might be to explore and evaluate options for outsourcing certain administrative and HR work functions through a payroll company. Finally, many farmers would also benefit from building knowledge about often nuanced and complex farm labor legal obligations. The reality is that farmers need to know more about their employment law obligations before they can set priorities, decide on action steps and begin to act, whether individually or collaboratively.  Another outcome of this project was the development of fact sheets on the basics of farm employment law in each of the 13 Northeast states to bolster understanding of farm employment obligations.  A webinar to share findings was held with 59 participants and a resource webpage hosts farm employment resources for additional outreach and access to farm labor information.

Project Objective:

Northeast Producers will receive detailed feasibility studies and implementation frameworks for 4 innovative solutions to labor challenges: 1) producer-owned collaborative that shares workers, 2) worker-owned collaborative that leases workers, 3) a nonprofit-owned temporary farm employment agency, and a 4) nonprofit collaborative internship curriculum and compliance program.

Project partners will commit to incorporating project findings about innovative farm labor models and feasibility into their work, and commit to future engagement addressing farm labor issues.


As the number of diversified farms grows in the NE region, solutions for recruiting, training, compensating, and retaining qualified farm workers are urgently needed. Farmers continually rank labor issues, including availability and wages, as the greatest challenge to improved profitability and quality of life. Beginning farmers fail to meet legal requirements for an intern program and established farms have difficulty finding qualified candidates for management roles. Farms have few sources for temporary help and special skills as needs fluctuate over a season.  Farm labor is a significant financial factor. Half of 15 states with the highest labor costs are in Northeast SARE region. Owners of diversified farms are often in the fields themselves; sacrificing time and money to manage HR obligations. Farm employees struggle as they piece together year-round work without the safety net of
unemployment insurance. Competitive positions lack livable wages or benefits and few management opportunities. Workers have limited ability to build capital. Despite websites hosting job listings, candidates are not applying. Training on management best practices alone does little to reduce labor costs.

A farmer-owned collaborative to share employees among farms could offer year round employment with possibility for advancement by pooling work across farms. A worker-owned collaborative would allow employees to lease themselves to different employers, achieving greater control over wages and conditions while creating qualified workers able to satisfy farm business-owners’ needs for consistency and reliability. These options make farm work more attractive by reducing repetitive work, offering full-time and year-round income, and increasing wages of management positions, while allowing farm owners to create management positions and secure a qualified labor force.

Farm owners could benefit from a temporary worker agency able to supply employees on short notice, especially if an entity could organize the agency according to specific standards. Farm internships could be more compliant if an entity could administer the necessary curriculum and other legal obligations essential to state and federal compliance.

Agricultural communities cannot implement any of the 4 potential solutions to labor issues described above because no one had explored the feasibility of these innovative business models. We lacked a clear understanding of exactly when, where, and how farmers would utilize these options, if made available, and thus were challenged to design a business model to accommodate desires. The size and scope necessary to achieve viability are unknown. The legal mechanics require detailed federal and state-by-state research to outline.

The objectives of this project were to conduct a comprehensive Northeast regional feasibility study that began with social science research (farm owner and farm worker focus groups and surveys) to assess the community’s precise desires and abilities relative to participating in 4 proposed collaborative labor innovations. We anticipated legal research would be necessary to clarify stakeholder roles, ensure legal compliance with complicated state and federal laws, and develop accurate business plan templates. We anticipated that we would identify in which state such collaborative labor models would incur the least compliance costs, and produce paperwork templates. It was anticipated that a business plan and budget templates would help stakeholders determine the scope and size necessary for profitability in the implementation of a collaborative labor model. We aimed to produce a feasibility plan that outlines when, where, and how these innovations are possible, with detailed implementation guidelines to assure the farming community can move forward in resolving farm labor concerns.

Over the course of the project period, the project team conducted 17 focus groups (round one in 2020 and round two in 2021) with 104 farmer owners and farm workers in New England and New York.  We also conducted a survey of a broader group of producers (74 workers and owners responded) in 2022 to compare perceptions with feedback from the focus groups. After an initial round of producer and worker feedback, the solutions were more specifically refined and referred to as "Entity X" as part of a specific narrative used to solicit the second round of feedback through additional focus groups and a regional survey to a broader group of producers. The solution provided farms with an opportunity to pool their resources into a new entity that would recruit and hire workers, distribute them across participating farms, and take care of the legal, financial, administrative, and Human Resources (HR) work involved in employing people. Farm owners would pay this entity an hourly rate per worker, and this would cover wages plus the entity's overhead.  The project examined how farm owners and workers responded to the broader concept of collaborative labor solutions, and to the various forms those solutions could take.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Rachel Armstrong (Educator and Researcher)
  • Nicole Waters (Educator)
  • Seth Wilner (Educator)
  • Mary Peabody (Educator and Researcher)
  • Jiff Martin (Educator)



Detailed social research and legal research will enable the creation of a comprehensive feasibility plan with implementation-ready frameworks for 4 innovative business models to solve labor challenges. The resulting feasibility guide will allow stakeholders to launch these solutions, resulting in improved quality of life and greater profitability for sustainable farmers in the northeast region. A producer-owned collaborative business, worker-owned collaborative business, temporary farm labor business, and collaborative intern training/advising program will each increase availability of qualified labor available to farmers, reduce costs to farmers while satisfying employee needs for steady, remunerative work that offers the potential for advancement.

Materials and methods:

The target population for this proposal included small to mid-scale diversified fruit and vegetable farmers who hire full-time or part-time seasonal workers in New England and NY. These producers practice sustainable growing methods and generally market products directly to consumers or engage in wholesale/institutional markets. Farm workers were also engaged in focus groups and surveys  to explore their perspectives, needs, and interest in alternative labor organizing approaches.

This project employed a variety of qualitative and quantitative research methods—including interviews (individual and focus groups), legal analysis (research and document drafting), and surveys—to identify emerging themes regarding the feasibility of 4 innovative models with potential to
resolve farm hiring, training, and management barriers. The following outlines the research design and timeline:

  • Researched 4 business models for alleviating recruitment and management burdens: 1) producer-owned collaborative that shares workers, 2) worker-owned collaborative that leases workers, 3) nonprofit-owned temporary farm employment agency, and 4) nonprofit collaborative internship compliance program by exploring potential models world-wide, conducting legal research (including state-specific implications for 5 states in the NE region), and assembling potential structures. (Year 1-2019)
  • Convened advisory committee to assist in brainstorming mechanics of the 4 models, give initial feedback/concerns, and recommend sources for research. (Year 1-2019)
  • Synthesized results of research into 4 draft illustrated business models that explore relationships between stakeholders, roles, responsibilities, financial viability and legal obligations into easy to understand format. (Year 1-2019)
  • Hosted 9 focus groups with Northeast specialty crop producers and farmworkers (2 producer and worker meetings per host partner in each of 5 states). Discuss farm labor needs and desires, including seasonality and labor rates; brainstorm opportunities and challenges of innovative business ventures as drafted; assess levels of interest to participate in proposed ventures. Each focus group targeted 10-12 participants, half farmers and half farmworkers. All focus groups were recorded and the recordings were transcribed by a contracted transcription service. A 2-3 page report was prepared for each focus group, charting the needs/desires and brainstormed opportunities and challenges of innovative models to elicit cross-sectional themes as well as differences between regions/states. (Year 2-2020)
  • We planned to conduct 1-1 interviews with 10 select producers and 10 select farmworkers targeting select focus group participants who have a unique perspective or expressed a high interest to explore research questions in more detail. Interviews would have been recorded and transcribed. Summaries of each interview would have been prepared to augment the respective focus group reports. (Year 2-2020) (Note:  we did not conduct follow up 1:1 interviews with participants due to COVID).
  • Issued a survey to a broader set of regional fruit and vegetable farmers and farmworkers (separate surveys to each group)to measure: (a) how closely emerging solutions fit needs and desires and (2) practicality of implementation. (Year 2 - 2020) (Note:  we postponed the broader survey until 2022 after the first two rounds of focus groups helped inform model refinement)
  • Convened advisory committee to provide feedback on draft innovative business models.
  • Refined the draft 4 illustrated business models to incorporate needs, preferences, and opinions expressed in focus groups, one-on-one interviews, advisory committee and survey feedback. Prepared a report outlining where proposed business models have been adapted to capture community feedback and where challenges (legal and financial) exist to accommodating the needs of the community. Prepared a 4-page summary of initial solutions, charting opportunities, challenges, and feasibility. (Year 2-2020)
  • Convened second focus group sessions. Presented focus groups with a summary of initial solutions and facilitated discussion questions and an interactive survey to field test results: Would the emerging solutions be acceptable frameworks for a farm labor sharing model? (Year 2-2021) (Note:  this transitioned into a "values alignment" interactive survey question about elements of a model to further refine potential model design).
  • Adapted 4 innovative business models into an "Entity X" a second time to best match farmer and farmworker needs and desires. (Year 2 - 2021)
  • Planned to develop accessory documents such as model bylaws, budget, organizational charts to accompany the 4 drafted business models, sufficient to enable a group of farmers or farmworkers to move forward in implementing the model. (Year 3 - 2022) (Note: it was determined there was still sufficient misunderstandings and lack of knowledge by employers about employment law and obligations for compliance that a series of educational labor law handbooks were developed as an outcome of this project and a discussion tool were developed for further exploration; we determined it didn't make sense to develop accessory documents to a structure farmers were not excited to implement at this time.)
  • Combined business model drafts and accessory documents into single comprehensive guide that outlines feasibility and implementation of a potential collaborative labor model, its strengths, weaknesses, legal dynamics and potential alongside the considerations necessary to proceed with their creation. (Year 3 - 2022) (Note: due to perceived lack feasibility by farmers of the models, focus turned to produce farm labor law education materials for each of the 13 Northeast states and a farmer discussion tool to engage in creativity around a potential model).
  • Distributed final, comprehensive business feasibility guide to participants and broader agricultural service community through outreach plan designed with input of advisory committee. (Year 3 - 2022)

Data Collection: Through the research, focus groups, interviews and surveys, we collected qualitative and quantitative data on three major categories:

  • Farm labor needs and desires farmer and farmworkers (cross-sectional in 5 Northeast states)—What farm labor challenges or barriers need to be addressed?
  • Opportunities and challenges of labor sharing models—Which, if any, models best address a region’s farm labor needs and desires?
  • Farmer and farmworkers levels of interest and commitment to participate in cooperative organizing—Will
    implementation be feasible?

The data collected was synthesized in a culminating feasibility guide which identified and examined certain themes and findings that emerged; assessed the feasibility of various options; and outlined benefits and barriers to adoption expected from creating collaborative labor procurement cooperatives and businesses. (year 3 - 2022)

We distributed the research findings and resource guide to project participants and partners and the broader agricultural service community through outreach strategies and a webinar presentation (59 attendees) per the Outreach Plan described below. (year 3-2022)

Research results and discussion:

A series of planning meetings and trainings of services providers who were conducting outreach and scheduling focus groups with farmers was held both as a group and during one-on-one sessions with Farm Commons staff.  Each partner conducted local outreach in their respective regions, scheduled focus group sessions, and was responsible for following the Focus Group Workbook developed for the sessions.  Each Facilitator had a Focus Group Workbook Facilitators Guide and provided participants with a Focus Group Participant Guide.  A 90-minute focus group was conducted and recorded.  Each participant received a $50 incentive for participation.  A series of 9 farmer focus groups were held or planned during winter 2020 with 46 participants:

  • Massachusetts - two focus groups were held on January 11, 2020 at the NOFA Massachusetts Winter Conference with 17 participants representing a mix of both farmers and farm workers; and on April 5, 2020 held online via Zoom with Eastern Massachusetts farmers with 4 participants representing mostly beginning farmers.
  • Connecticut - two focus groups were scheduled; one was held March 7, 2020 at the CT NOFA Winter Conference with 11 participants; a second was scheduled for March 30th in collaboration with the CT Farm Bureau Association Farm Labor Series.  The latter was cancelled due to COVID.  
  • New York - two focus groups were scheduled in coordination with existing Cornell labor management trainings; one was held March 3, 2020 at the Dutchess County Cooperative Extension Office in Milbrook, NY with 6 participants; the other was scheduled for March 17, 2020 at the Orleans County Cooperative Extension Office.  The latter cancelled due to COVID.
  • Vermont / New Hampshire - three focus groups were scheduled in Vermont through a collaboration between UVM and UNH; one was held online on March 19th to cover the greater Burlington area (Northwest portion of Vermont - Chittenden, Grand Isle, and Addison counties) and 5 farmers participated.  Another focus group was held March 26th in the Upper Valley (Windsor and Orange counties) comprising both farmers from Vermont and New Hampshire and 3 farmers participated. A third focus group scheduled for April 9th, 2020 via Zoom with farm workers/employees ultimately was canceled. 

Due to COVID-19, the original number of in-person focus groups scheduled were significantly disrupted or canceled entirely.   Some partners were able to reschedule the events to be held in an online format, for others, there was too much unknown about the COVID closures and market disruptions, and by the time something could have been rescheduled, partners felt that it would have been impossible to get producers' attention to reschedule using an online format.

Despite the setbacks, existing data from the focus groups was provided to Farm Commons who then transcribed and analyzed the data and developed a summary report of the farmer feedback that was shared and reviewed with project collaborators in July 2020 (Focus Group Report_July 2020). 

Following discussion of the 2020 Focus Group Findings Report with partners and advisors, it was determined that there was more interest in exploring cooperative labor models and/or LLC models, but that farmers overall had limited interest in the temporary worker agency model, so that could be dropped from future discussion.  Producers were interested in multi-stakeholder cooperatives (both worker and owner groups), and both require different levels of investment.  Farm Commons worked to refine the options for future business models to focus on for the second round (2021) farmer and farm worker focus group sessions.  

In the original proposal for this research, it was envisioned that the group would develop one or more of the original models presented in our first focus groups and develop more detailed, refined versions (business plans, legal compliance required, implementation guides, etc.) to present to a second round of focus groups for additional feedback.  The interest in possible hybrid cooperative models seemed somewhat new or "novel," but the group determined they are really a refinement of the existing models expressed by the first round of participants. The Farm Commons team proposed to focus the second round of farmer feedback more on the values or desired characteristics of a possible structure rather than presenting refined model options with all the details and asking producers to “vote for their favorite.”  The goal became to streamline the amount of information presented and avoid sharing too many details about the proposed models that producers might not care about but rather presenting requirements of the potential models that could be deal breakers and prevent producer adoption.

Farm Commons prepared a format for the second round of focus groups that involved an interactive online focus group survey that producers completed during facilitated conversation addressing key questions and probing value statements such as: “I would be willing to make significant investment to make xx happen (pay higher wage, give workers more autonomy), OR “ I feel it is important that workers have a stake in the success of business.”  Producers would be asked how much they agree on the value statement (agree or strongly disagree) to help parse out what producers cared about most relative to the proposed model (or business entity). Some of the suggested questions were formatted to address the legal issues inherent in the models: paying overtime, providing workers compensation insurance, following health and safety compliance (OSHA), and other factors.

A series of planning meetings with service providers were conducted through the fall to coordinate outreach and scheduling of the focus groups with farmers and employees during winter 2021.  Each partner conducted local outreach in their respective regions, scheduled the 2021 focus group sessions, and was responsible for hosting the sessions that were led and facilitated by Farm Commons staff.  A 90-minute focus group was conducted and recorded in each state.  Participants were sent a FG 2 Handout Proposed Solutions Employee Group or an FG 2 Handout Proposed Solutions Farmer Group worksheet as an introduction to the proposed model (separate descriptions for workers vs owners) and potential considerations for discussion.  Participants completed a demographic survey upon entry to the focus group and then followed along with a in-focus group survey to discuss reactions to statements, interact with other participants, and record responses during the facilitated session.  In this way, the focus groups captured both quantitative (survey responses) and qualitative (discussion, reflection, reactions) to the various values statements and model components presented.  Each participant received a $50 gift card incentive for participation. 

A series of 8 virtual farmer and farm worker focus groups were held online during winter 2021 with 58 participants:

  • Massachusetts - two focus groups were held on February 11, 2021 (7 participants representing farm owners) and February 22, 2021 (4 participants representing farm workers) online via Zoom with Eastern Massachusetts farmers.  A total of 12 farmer owners registered to participate in the focus groups and 11 farm workers registered to participate, but actual attendance was lower, this was common across all the states whereby each partner received more registrants to participate than actually attended the sessions.  We had capped participation to 12 registrants for each session (which in hind sight we should have accepted more registrants up front to account for no-shows).
  • Connecticut - two focus groups were held on February 18, 2021 (10 participants representing farm workers) and February 19, 2021 (9 participants representing farm owners).
  • Vermont - two focus groups were scheduled on March 2, 2021 (9 participants representing farm owners) and March 4, 2021 (3 participants representing farm workers). 
  • New Hampshire - two focus groups were scheduled on March 22, 2021 (10 participants representing farm owners) and March 29, 2021 (farm workers).  The farm worker focus group in NH was ultimately canceled as only one participant registered and conversation with farm owners from the March 22 group was decidedly unfavorable about many of the models, and the team felt that we had sufficient farm worker input from other states to cancel the NH farm worker session.
  • New York - two focus groups were scheduled on February 19, 2021 (farm workers) and March 18, 2021 (farm owners).  The farm owner focus group had 8 producers register and 5 farm businesses participating (6 farmers), but the farm worker focus group scheduled for 2/19 ultimately only had 2 people register, so the decision was cancel the New York farm worker focus group and direct the registrants to participate in the Massachusetts farm worker focus group on February 22, 2021, but the workers did not attend.

The partner debrief from the second round of focus groups was that it was extremely value to bring together farmers and workers and discuss the challenges inherent in agricultural labor from both perspectives.  Two instructive things about the focus groups were:  (a) the opportunity to bring farmers together and provide an opportunity to present solutions and see opportunity for change/innovation (most labor issues are so deep farmers expressed discouragement at not being able to solve the challenges or "see through the fog"; and (2) most groups had very interesting conversations that would not have started/happened without bringing multiple perspectives together.  The focus groups were an opportunity to "plant a seed" at imagining something new, which is the hope of conducting a feasibility assessment:  introducing new ideas, exploring where it may take root, and evaluating where it might lead in the future.

The second round of focus group data was assessed, analyzed, and relevant conclusions determined by Farm Commons and a draft report was presented to the Advisory Group and partners the 2021 Second Round Focus Group Report.  Next steps for the project were also defined and planned which included developing a survey to distribute to a broader audience of Northeast farmers and farmworkers to validate the conclusions arrived in the focus groups and planning a webinar to share project results and engage farmers in discussion groups to reflect on the potential collaborative labor solutions.

Research conclusions:

The goal of this project was to explore how farmer or worker owned cooperatives or other collaborative structures can be part of the solution to an identified shortage of farm labor in the northeastern states. The project involved an initial round of focus groups with northeastern specialty crop producers and farm workers to discuss and provide feedback on three of four prospective business models including: 1) a farmer-owned LLC to lease labor to member farms; 2) a farmer-owned labor cooperative; 3) a workerowned labor cooperative; and, 4) an independent temporary labor agency. A July 2020 report reflects the findings of the initial round of focus group interviews.  Each focus group engaged between three and ten participants representing diverse farming experiences.

During the first round of focus groups (held January - March 2020), of the many comments that were shared, participants’ comments fell into the following categories most frequently:
Administration and Finances:  i.e., viability of proposed labor rate or start-up membership fees, Board control and qualifications, manager’s workload and compensation, expertise in managing schedules with an understanding of agricultural operations
Complexity/Time Commitment:  i.e., level of involvement in organizational management
Recruitment:  Where workers come from, geographical bounds for farm participation, vocational stigma, wage competition
Responsiveness to Changing Labor Demands:  i.e., ability to accommodate on-demand labor needs, conflicts in timing of labor needs
Worker Quality/Retention:  i.e., training needs of workers, incentives to retain workers from season to season, establishing strong relationships and shared culture among workers on the farm and the farm operator, differences in skills needed across different farms
Equitable Decision Making/Conflicts of Interest: i.e., potential for larger farms to dominate the organization, division of available labor among member farms, geographical bounds for farm participation, member adherence to procedural requirements
Worker Justice:  i.e., ability to pay living wage, quality of work environment, housing availability, grievance resolution

The intended goal of this project was to develop and refine collaborative business models that are actionable by farmers. Because discussions of the temporary agency model did not identified any action steps that farmers can collectively pursue to implement the model, we chose not to advance the temporary agency model to the second round of focus group review. Given that the action oriented focus group participants tended to favor the cooperative models and, potentially, a modified LLC model providing for more equitable decision-making, Farm Commons focused on developing further a hybridized worker-owned and farmer-owned cooperative models in an effort to develop models that offer the perceived benefits of cooperatives in a fashion that seeks to balance organizational influence between farmers and workers.

After gathering consensus from advisors as to whether these two models were appropriate for further development, Farm Commons moved into the second phase. The second phase was to develop a more complete business plan and financial projections, including a review of the legal implications of the proposed business model. The second phase also included a second round of focus groups to gather feedback on the proposed business models which will be conducted in winter 2021.  A workbook was developed with the model to be used in the second round of focus groups was presented to advisors. 

The 2021 focus groups were scheduled starting in February through March 2021 and were held virtually as noted above.  The goals of the remaining focus groups were to:  1) Identify the characteristics of a farm labor solution that is most likely to attract participation by farmers in the form of patronage, financial investment, and/or time investment, and legal labor compliance; and 2) Sketch an initial profile of a farmer (in terms of operation type, scale, and needs expressed) who is inclined to participate in the form of patronage, financial investment, and/or time investment in a proposed farm labor solution.

Key takeaways from the second round of focus groups with Farmers were the following:

  1. Farmers are reticent to give up control over the hiring process (a proposed "let the Entity X hire for you" was not perceived as a value add).  Perhaps if farmers had more time to think about it or consider their time investment throughout the hiring process they could come to greater acceptance of delegating or hiring out that function.  Issues of the autonomy of having a farm and the perception of each farm being unique presented barriers to centralized human resources functions. 
  2. Farmers seemed enthusiastic about delegating the paperwork and administrative aspects to an "Entity." The Entity could be responsible for the legal compliance, but a certain proportion of farmers are already using a payroll company and are happy with those services.  For those who are not, it may be a good solution as payroll companies are already set up to handle issues such as workers compensation, payroll taxes, benefits, time off, etc. for a relatively affordable price.  For this component of a proposed new entity, there is an expressed need but some farmers already have a solution. 
  3. The proposed "Entity X" business structure (cooperative, whether worker or farmer owned, or LLC model) seemed like an after-thought for most producers and they didn't see a real value or enough value of a structure like an "Entity X" to bring efficiency to their operations.  Producers may not have been ready to decide which entity or provide specific suggestions for by-laws or legal documents.  Overall, consensus was the proposed "Entity X" was not filling a demonstrated need for which the solution would be accepted.

For the focus groups with Employees or Farm Workers, there were a diversity in responses. There was significant variability among farm workers along experience levels.  Many were working on farms to gain skills, learning what they like to do (enterprises, tasks, etc.) and if the farm workers were younger, many were still experimenting with and figuring out if farm work is a viable career option.  Often the workers were working for young, beginning farmers and could not see the potential for those farm owners to pay more or offer overtime when the farm owner was barely paying themselves.  Those on the earlier side of their career were most attracted to the idea of an "Entity X" like a worker-owned cooperative.  These "explorers" however are not necessarily the employees farmers want to hire who may not be in it for the long haul.  While the employee audience seemed most receptive to the proposed models, they may not be the target audience to make the program successful.

One of the biggest challenges with conducting the second round of focus groups and probing more deeply into the nuances of the requirements or values around the proposed business models was the considerable level of misinformation around employment law among the individuals in the focus groups.  Many of the farmers were not knowledgeable or were incorrect in their understanding of overtime requirements, workers’ compensation obligations, or OSHA compliance.  This made it more difficult to discuss the distinct aspects or requirements and receive feedback on the Entity X business model as participants were responding according to perceptions and perceived values that were potentially based on misinformation.  This was challenging when the participants were in error about the requirements of law.  When asked about their "perceptions" or "feelings" the responses were based on a misunderstanding of the law that could have influenced their responses.  As the focus groups were not supposed to be teaching producers about employment law, but receiving their input to the proposed model, it was challenging to get a sense of how accurate their responses would have been had they been better informed.  Facilitators anticipated there was potentially a 30% mismatch between reality and perception.  It was a consistent struggle during the focus groups (to politely intervene during discussion and correct misunderstandings of the legal requirements) since facilitators did not want to create more misinformation.

As a result of the conversations and overall consensus that farmers did not seem receptive to adopting various iterations of the proposed models, it was determined that a better approach for next steps was twofold:

1) Draft a series of fact sheets around multiple labor law topics.  These fact sheets would cover issues such as: minimum wage, overtime (there is significant confusion and changes being proposed to overtime and who is/is not covered, so the fact sheets can communicate what the laws are and discuss where different interpretations are occurring);workers compensation insurance; unemployment insurance; discrimination (protected classes); sick pay and COVID time off policies; worker protections (OSHA compliance) and other topics to present a clear understanding of farm labor requirements in each of the five states covered in the project.  Farm Commons completed the fact sheets for each of the states which were published on the New Entry farm labor resource webpage in 2022.

2) Develop a Collaborative Labor Solution discussion guide or decision tree:  Initially, the thinking of the project is that research would point to a clear "labor model solution" that producers would be excited about adopting.  The idea was to then flesh out comprehensive business model, legal and operating agreements, by-laws, and playbook for producers to form the preferred solution.  In the absence of a clear "Entity" consensus or buy in from farmers, putting a lot of effort into a comprehensive business plan and model documents for an Entity that may not go forward seemed unproductive.  Rather, Advisors and Collaborators determined that one of the biggest "value-adds" in this project has been bringing farmers together to have community conversations around labor issues.  Development of a collaborative farm labor discussion guide or decision tree could be a useful tool to outline the steps that farmers would need to take (a checklist) to meet a certain set of goals for the farms involved.  This would facilitate conversation among the producers and guide them through a set of decisions or discussions that would form the steps needed to move forward with their proposed ideas (the beginnings of a "Toolkit" to form an Entity X). Farm Commons developed a producer discussion guide that could be used to facilitate this conversation.  The Guide was posted to the New Entry farm labor resource webpage in 2022.

Additionally, the group felt that surveying a broader group of farmers and farm workers to further validate the findings of the focus groups would be instructive.  A survey similar to the questions asked in the second round of focus groups was administered to regional producers in early winter 2022, and 74 producers and workers responded to the survey.  The findings of the survey reflected similar sentiments to the feedback received in the focus groups.  A final report was developed that summarized the key issues and recommendations for a path forward.  As part of the report, Farm Commons developed and included the series of 13 fact sheets for each Northeast state and the collaborative labor discussion guide.  A webinar was held on March 29, 2022 during "Agricultural Employment Week" that covered employment law/legal education (1st half of webinar) and a facilitated collaborative labor strategy discussion among producers in breakout groups (2nd half of webinar) for producers to trial using the discussion guide.  59 attendees participated in the webinar (102 participants registered) and online polling results demonstrated 45% of respondents increased their familiarity with farm labor solutions after attending the workshop.

Additional conclusions and recommendations for next steps can be found in the 2021 Second Round Focus Group Report and the Final Report and Discussion Toolkit which offers summary of the producer responses to Entity X and recommendations for further solutions.

Participation Summary
178 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities:

19 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
14 Other educational activities: 14 focus groups with farmers were held during the project period (6 in 2020 and 8 in 2021); all participants reported that the sessions were educational and valuable experiences.

Participation Summary:

178 Farmers participated
11 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Outreach description:

Our project committee determined and clarified our core target audience and we developed the outreach messaging used to attract up to 15-20 producers per focus group that were held in New England and New York States (MA, VT, NH, NY, CT) during 2020-2021.

Criteria for farmer / farm worker selection for outreach and recruitment:The target population for this proposal included small to mid-scale diversified fruit and vegetable farmers who hired full-time or part-time seasonal workers in New England and NY. These producers practice sustainable growing methods and generally market products directly to consumers or engage in wholesale/institutional markets. Farm workers were engaged in focus groups to explore their perspectives, needs, and interest in alternative labor organizing approaches.  We also included different enterprise types such as an orchard with U-pick, etc., and included farms that have strong agritourism practices.

First (2020) Farmer Focus Group Outreach and Recruitment Language for partners:  Farm Labor Innovations:  Do you struggle with getting all the work done on your farm?  Do you have challenges attracting and retaining employees?  Are you interested in working with other farmers to design solutions to labor challenges?  Please register here [include registration link] to attend a farmer focus group to discuss novel approaches to farm labor solutions.  We will discuss four potential models and discuss the opportunities, challenges, and interest in each model.  Be prepared to provide your input and feedback!  The focus group will be held on [insert date / time] in [location, city/state/address].  Advanced registration is required.  We are seeking small to mid-scale diversified fruit and vegetable farmers in New England and New York who practice sustainable growing methods and market products directly to consumers or engage in wholesale/institutional markets.  We are particularly interested in producers who hire full-time, part-time seasonal workers, and/or family members.  A gift card of $50 will be provided.  Participation is limited, so please register by [date].  This project is funded by a Northeast SARE Novel Approaches grant, LNE19-386R.  For questions about this project, please contact [insert point of contact name, email].

Second (2021) Farmer Focus Group Outreach and Recruitment Language for partners:  Join us for two upcoming Farm Labor Solutions Focus Groups!  New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Farm Commons, and NY, CT, NH, and VT Land-Grant Extension programs are collaborating to develop innovative farm labor models and we seek input from farmers and farm workers.

For Farm Owners:  Do you struggle with getting all the work done on your farm?  Do you have challenges attracting and retaining employees?  Are you interested in working with other farmers to design solutions to labor challenges? 

For Farm Workers/Employee:  Do you wish you had more consistent employment on farms?  Are you satisfied with your wages and benefits?  Do you have specialized skills that could be applied to multiple farms?  Are you interested in exploring possible collaborative worker-owned labor structures?

If you resonate with the above challenges and opportunities, consider attending one of our Farm Labor focus groups, Exploring Novel Approaches to Farm Labor, to be held via Zoom (online) – Register here [insert link]

Farm Owners:  Date / Time

Farm Employees:  Date / Time

We will discuss and provide feedback on potential farm labor models and the opportunities, challenges, and interests of producers and workers to engage with these models.  Be prepared to provide your input and feedback during these interactive online sessions.  Register now by clicking here [insert link].  Once registered, you will receive a confirmation and calendar invitation with Zoom link to confirm your spot in the focus group. Space is limited to 10 participants per focus group, so please register early.  An electronic gift card of $50 will be provided for participation in the project. 

Are you a good fit?  We are seeking small to mid-scale diversified fruit and vegetable farmers in New England and New York who practice sustainable growing methods and who market products directly to consumers or engage in wholesale/institutional markets.  We are particularly interested in producers who hire and compensate at least 2-3 full-time, part-time seasonal workers, and/or family members during a farming season.

We are also interested in hearing from farm employees, farm workers, and others who provide labor on farms, either in a field-level role or farm management role.  If you are a farm worker, please register for the Farm Employee Focus Group to share your perspective.

This project is funded by a Northeast SARE Novel Approaches grant, LNE19-386R.   For questions about this project, please contact [list organizer contact.]

We also advertised a webinar to share results of the project.  The outreach was disseminated through national listservs (NIFTI, AgALN, COMFOOD, NESAWG, and through Northeast Extension producer e-lists).  102 participants registered and 59 attended, which included farmers, policy makers, nonprofits, agricultural service providers and others.  Webinar outreach included:

Do your farmers struggle to find labor for their farms?  Join us on Tuesday, March 29th from 3 – 4:30 pm EST during National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW) for an informative workshop to learn about results of a 3-year Northeast SARE research project to assess collaborative, multi-farm strategies to help our agricultural community solve labor challenges.  National Farmworker Awareness Week (March 26 – April 2, 2022) is a week of action for communities and individuals to bring attention to farmworkers and honor them for the contributions they make to our daily lives.

Register Here[insert link]

New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Farm Commons, and Land-Grant Extension programs in NY (Cornell), CT (UConn), NH (UNH), and VT (UVM) worked together over the last two years to develop innovative farm labor models and gather input from farmers and farm workers throughout New England and New York to explore challenges in attracting and retaining employees, providing consistent employment on farms, offering secure wages and benefits, provide managerial opportunities, and smooth the ups and downs of demand. Is a farmer-cooperative to recruit employees feasible? Do farm workers want to participate in a “temp agency” type entity?

Find out what we learned about these questions and more! Learn how these novel approaches might serve to inspire new collaborations to address farm labor challenges.  Come prepared to discuss the findings and be inspired to create your own role in advancing new solutions with other service providers and farmers.

Register today:  [insert Zoom link]

For more information, visit:

Additional farm labor resources were shared with participants after the webinar and all project materials have been posted to the New Entry Farm Labor Resources webpage here:

Learning Outcomes

178 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
16 Service providers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
16 Educators or agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their project outreach
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

We held six, 90-minute focus groups between January - April, 2020.  We also held eight focus groups between February and March 2021 with partners.  Our project team and advisory committee have been meeting monthly throughout the project and shared best practices around initial focus group response and experience; and through synthesis of the 2020 and 2021 focus group results compiled by Farm Commons.  The first focus group guidebook (producer and facilitator guides) served as the basis for our focus group meetings with farmers and farm workers and educated participants on the four business model drafts, legal and financial considerations of each.  The focus group format offered opportunities for farmer feedback and discussion.  The sessions were recorded and analyzed by Farm Commons staff and presented to educators in a July 2020 report.  We discussed the findings and provided input as to the next phase of the business model development that was used for the 2021 (second round) of focus groups with farmers in 2021.

One of the key issues that surfaced in the revised hybrid business model is that it has the potential to trigger compliance with OSHA for the farm employers who might engage this business model. To learn more about the implications of this, the group invited a Department of Labor speaker who is responsible for OSHA compliance to our scheduled September 2020 monthly meeting.  The OSHA representative provided a presentation on the directives, exemptions, and consultation service available through OSHA.  Producers would be exempt from OSHA if they employ 10 or fewer employees at all times during the last 12 months and have not had any active farm labor camps in operation over the same 12 month period.n  Any type of value-added or higher level processing would not be exempt from OSHA.  He covered additional areas of risk, standards farms would need to come into compliance with if they were subject to OSHA oversight, and shared OSHA resources that educators could share with producers.  All the educators in attendance reported learning new information.

Also during 2020, the group reviewed all of the regulatory compliance issues that might be triggered or covered in a new farm labor model, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant Seasonal Labor Protection Act, OSHA, EPA pesticide guidelines, Worker Protection Status compliance obligations, federal and state taxes (withholdings and payments), workers' compensation insurance, and more.  

The group also discovered an active farm labor model operating in Colorado, called the Mobile Farm and Food Workforce that started as an organized labor pool to support veterans to come onto farms to glean produce for hunger relief organizations.  It has since expanded to provide a similar model of a contract labor pool similar to the ideas this project is exploring.  We invited a presentation on the Colorado Farm Labor Service from UpRoot Colorado, David Laskarzewski to speak at our November 2020 meeting and learn from their experience about what works, how they recruit the laborers, how they coordinate transportation, other best practices, administrative structure, pricing, farmer demand, future plans and other issues.  Educators learned a tremendous amount from the information exchange.

Conversations following the 2021 farmer and farm worker focus groups revealed that producers lack basic knowledge of farm employment law.  Discussions around need for ongoing education and behavior change among producers who may not be familiar with legal requirements around farm labor and/or who are familiar with yet choose not to comply, resulted in the decision to focus on developing a series of 13 fact sheets (one for each Northeast state) on farm employment law for the region.  Feedback from focus groups revealed that producers appreciate the opportunity to focus on labor solutions (vs consistent challenges) also prompted the project goal to develop a Decision tree/guide to be used in active discussions and conversations around potential labor innovations/solutions with farmer groups.  An educational webinar was held March 29th, 2022 to provide both legal education and an opportunity for farmers to discuss labor issues with one another related to creative labor solutions, and 102 participants registered and 59 attended the session.  A zoom poll inquired whether participants gained knowledge of farmer labor solutions and 45% of participants reported gaining knowledge (55% reported same level of knowledge prior to the workshop vs after the workshop).

Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

Some quotes from survey respondents:

"For our farm, [this model] it may offer some benefits to support us with seasonal support. We hire only 1-2 seasonal people at the moment, so we would not be a big user of the system. But it would save the Board and Farm Manager a good deal of time and effort. It would be great to be able to resource seasonal part-time farm-based educators from this entity. Unsure we would want to outsource our farm manager, we want to have a close relationship with that person. Skeptical that [the entity] would save us $ in workers comp. It is helpful to have a place to get employee relations to support pro bono or for a nonprofit price. It sounds like you are looking to create a recruitment agency for farmers. Plenty of successful headhunting firms to model after."

From a nonprofit urban farming program participant in the discussion webinar in March 2022 - "Thank you for sharing these resources and for the meeting this week! I took a lot away from the ideas that were presented, sometimes in those meetings I struggle to think on the correct level for absorbing or sharing some of my ideas and experiences. But being the "faux"-cilitator of our breakout group kind of helped me just get things out there. Also I liked the Jamboard, I've used it once in the past, but wasn't brushed up enough to use it quickly and cleanly, so a little refresher would have helped me capture more. Anyway, I really appreciate the time and ideas to germinate, looking forward to attending more [sessions] like this!"

Below are some additional perspectives from several farmworker survey respondents:

"I'm thrilled that you are trying to create a way for farmers/farm workers to make a real living wage. I worked on various farms for years but ended up stopping because it's hard to make a real living at it, pay for housing, kids, etc. I do a workshare at a farm now. I think that as a society we ought to place value our farmers and farm workers more--since we all need to eat they are absolutely essential to everyone--and pay them a sustainable living!"

"The most important thing to me is respect.  As a worker, I will work in harsh weather, doing [#$%*&] jobs, as long as my boss and coworkers treat me with respect. Things like workers comp don’t matter too much to me as long as my boss is respectful."

"While I would prefer a cooperative structure, and ideally one in which workers and not just farm operators have have votes and role in governance process, I would be a bit concerned about options for start-up capital and investment with a cooperative vs with some sort of private business structure. Overall I think an Entity X could provide immense value to both farmers and farm workers, and serve as an important avenue to improve equity and current power imbalances (often unintentional) within farm operations."

"Health insurance! When I first read this I thought - great! A way to give farm laborers HEALTH INSURANCE. This would be a great reason for something like this, and farm owners would also be behind it. HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE."

"The only thing that sounds unappealing to me about the basic structure of this entity is the possibility of working for many farms. While this could be great, allowing breadth of knowledge as well as opportunities for people to exchange leadership in different contexts, I also worry that it could cause problems and inefficiencies if not extremely well organized, could cause conflict if labor is needed in multiple areas at once, and could not allow those learning to farm to acquire the appropriate depth of knowledge. I think it could be great if done well, but could easily go wrong. Maybe employees only switch between farms when the are new and once they're ready for a management role, they remain at one location? I had a difficult time answering some of the compensation questions because they are so situation dependent. For example, I would only take a pay cut for overtime if I expected that we'd work a significant amount of overtime. Also, unemployment insurance is not very important to me because I have confidence in my ability to find a new job. However, it would be important to me that a business provides this because I have seen how much more difficult that process can be for people who have a barrier such as mental illness. It is important to making the job accessible. Sick time is not addressed here, and I want to emphasize that this is extremely important. I think it is more important than overtime pay and most other benefits. It is necessary to make the job accessible to anyone who is chronically or has a disability that sometimes affects their ability to work. It can also protect anyone whose health is more compromised from coworkers coming to work while sick. And of course, it protects everyone including customers."

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Key to our success to date has been having strong project management, a defined timeline, and a strong core partner (Farm Commons) who immediately launched into the project to develop a working draft of the four business models and a farmer focus group template/workbook to present to the core team for feedback and project planning.  We discussed the draft business model workbooks, made substantive changes and suggested edits to it, and then scheduled the 2020 farmer focus groups to implement the guidebooks. Each focus group was facilitated by the local extension partner sessions were be recorded, transcribed, and compiled into a written report for synthesis and to compare findings across the region to inform next iteration of the business models.  Farm Commons then developed a second round facilitation guide and process to take initial feedback and help the collaborators prepare for additional farmer input on the refined models.  Second round focus groups were held in Winter 2021 and a follow up regional survey was distributed in spring 2022.  Farm Commons' expertise in farm labor law has provided significant contributions, direction, and guidance throughout this project and they have already developed clear materials that could be replicated by other educators in different regions of the country. 

Materials developed through this project include:

Focus Group Workbook Facilitators Guide

Second Round Focus Group Presentation (PPT) as handouts

Focus Group In Session Survey

Second Round Focus Group - Worksheet for Farm Owners

Second Round Focus Group - Worksheet for Farm Workers/Employees

Collaborative Labor Solutions to Farm Labor Challenges:  What is Feasible?  - this final report includes a summary of key findings, a discussion Toolkit for producers to explore labor solutions and 13 fact sheets of basic farm employment law for Northeast states.

Information Products

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.