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

Progress 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
Co-Leaders:
Jennifer Hashley
Trustees of Tufts College / New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
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Project 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.

Introduction:

As the number of diversified farms grows in the NE region, solutions for recruiting, training, compensating, and retaining qualified farmworkers 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 would benefit from a temporary worker agency able to supply employees on short notice, especially if a nonprofit could organize the agency according to specific standards. Farm internships would be easier and more affordable if an entity could administer the necessary curriculum and other legal obligations essential to state and federal compliance.

Communities cannot implement any of the 4 potential solutions to labor issues described above because no one has explored the feasibility of these innovative business models. We lack a clear understanding of exactly when, where, and how farmers would utilize these options, if made available, and thus cannot 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.

We need a comprehensive Northeast regional feasibility study that begins with social science research assessing the community’s precise desires and abilities relative to participating in the 4 proposed innovations. Legal research is essential to clarifying stakeholder roles, ensuring legal compliance with complicated state and federal laws, and developing accurate business plan templates. Legal research will also identify in which state such models would incur the least compliance costs, and produce paperwork templates. Business plan and budget templates will help stakeholders determine the scope and size necessary for profitability. A feasibility plan that outlines when, where, and how these innovations are possible, with detailed implementation guidelines will assure the farming community can move forward in resolving farm labor concerns.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Rachel Armstrong (Educator and Researcher)
  • Nicole Waters (Educator)
  • Seth Wilner (Educator)
  • Mary Peabody (Educator and Researcher)
  • Jiff Martin (Educator)

Research

Hypothesis:

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 includes 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 will also be engaged in focus groups to explore their perspectives, needs, and interest in alternative labor organizing approaches.

This project will employ 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:

  • Research 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)
  • Convene advisory committee to assist in brainstorming mechanics of the 4 models, give initial feedback/concerns, and recommend sources for research. (Year 1-2019)
  • Synthesize 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)
  • Host 10 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 will target 10-12 participants, half farmers and half farmworkers. All focus groups will be recorded and the recordings will be transcribed by a contracted transcription service. A 2-3 page report will be 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)
  • Conduct 1-1 interviews with 10 select producers and 10 select farmworkers. Interview select focus group participants who have a unique perspective or expressed a high interest to explore research questions in more detail. Interviews will be recorded and transcribed. Summaries of each interview will be prepared to augment the respective focus group reports. (Year 2-2020)
  • Issue surveys to 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)
  • Convene advisory committee to provide feedback on draft innovative business models.
  • Refine 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. Prepare 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. Prepare a 4-page summary of initial solutions, charting opportunities, challenges, and feasibility. (Year 2-2020)
  • Convene second focus group sessions. Present focus groups with 4-page summary of initial solutions and facilitate discussion questions to field test results: Would the emerging solutions be acceptable frameworks for a farm labor sharing model? (Year 3-2021)
  • Adapt 4 innovative business models a second time to best match farmer and farmworker needs and desires. (Year 3 – 2021)
  • 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 – 2021)
  • Combine business model drafts and accessory documents into single comprehensive guide that outlines feasibility and implementation of the 4 business models, their strengths, weaknesses, legal dynamics and potential alongside the paperwork necessary to proceed with their creation. (Year 3 – 2021)
  • Distribute final, comprehensive business feasibility guide to participants and broader agricultural service community through outreach plan designed with input of advisory committee. (Year 3 – 2021)

Data Collection: Through the research, focus groups, interviews and surveys, we will collect 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 will be synthesized in a culminating feasibility guide which will identify and examine certain themes and findings that emerge; assess the feasibility of various options; and outline benefits expected from creating collaborative labor procurement cooperatives and businesses. (year 3 – 2021)

We will distribute the research findings and resource guide to project participants and partners and the broader agricultural service community through outreach strategies, a webinar presentation, and a conference workshop presentation per the Outreach Plan described below. (year 3-2021)

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). 

Research conclusions:

The goal of this project is 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 involves 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 is to develop and refine collaborative business models that are actionable by farmers. Because discussions of the temporary agency model have not identified any action steps that farmers can collectively pursue to implement the model, we have chosen 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 are 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 includes 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 and presented to advisors.  The 2021 focus groups are currently being scheduled starting in mid-January 2021 through March 2021 and will be held virtually.  The goals of the remaining focus groups are 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 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.

Participation Summary
46 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools

Participation Summary

46 Farmers
16 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 have developed the outreach messaging we would like to use to attract up to 15-20 producers per focus group that will be 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 includes 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 will also be engaged in focus groups to explore their perspectives, needs, and interest in alternative labor organizing approaches.  We also want to include different enterprise types such as an orchard with U-pick, etc., and can include farms that have strong agritourism practices.

Draft 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].

Learning Outcomes

46 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 will be holding additional focus groups in winter 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 initial (2020) 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 will be 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.

Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

No success stories to report at this time.

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 will be held in Winter 2021.  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 FG PPT as handouts

Focus Group In Session Survey

 

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.