Massachusetts Employee Manual Template: A Tool for Improving Employee Management on Farms

Final report for ONE18-311

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2018: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, Inc. (CISA)
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Margaret Christie
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)
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Project Information


CISA created an employee manual template for Massachusetts farms. The template is available on our website at this link. Farm businesspeople can use the template to learn more about required and recommended policies and components of an employee manual. Users can select the portions of the manual they want to incorporate into their farm employee manual and can download, edit, and add to those sections in order to create a personalized employee manual.

As part of our process of developing and testing the manual, we worked with five farms to develop or update their employee manuals, provided detailed support on employee policies to an additional eight farms, and conducted a workshop in which we presented on the knowledge gained through this project and distributed copies of the employee manual template. Of 20 farmers participating in this workshop, 17 reported that they planned to make changes to their farm employee policies and management as a result of the workshop, and upon follow-up in December 2020, 11 of these farmers reported that they had developed/updated their employee manuals and written policies.

Dissemination of the employee manual template to farmers and service providers is ongoing.

Project Objectives:

This project created a legally-sound and farm-relevant employee manual template that can be tailored to the needs of individual Massachusetts farms, for use by farms and service providers. The manual template sets standards for employment management practices that support good working conditions and clear workplace communication.

An employee manual can improve working conditions, enhance clarity about responsibilities, and address current and historic inequities. For example, having a manual in writing gives an employee something to point to if the farm is not meeting its obligations, and a template gives farms an idea of what is reasonable and what standard they should be meeting.

The project met the following objectives:

Objective 1:  Draft an employee manual template with legal guidance and farm applicability.

Objective 2: Test and revise the template by tailoring it to two farms. Revise the template, if needed, with input from test farms and our legal advisor.

Objective 3: Disseminate the template widely to Massachusetts service providers including lawyers in the Conservation Law Fund Food Hub network. This process is ongoing.

As a result of this project, farmers will be able to more efficiently and affordably adopt an employee manual for their own farm and will have added support in developing good employee management practices.


Previous to this project, several resources existed to help farms and other businesses in developing employee manuals. These resources had limitations but served as a building block for the template we developed. Because employment laws and workplace norms in agriculture are significantly different from other industries, generic employee manuals fall short of meeting farmers’ needs.

A handful of resources do exist with information on developing an employee manual that is specific to farms. Notable resources include an overview to writing farm employee manuals by Vern Grubinger, a farm employee manual template developed for Michigan farmers, a model farm employee contract developed with farmworker input by the Agricultural Justice Project, and a farm employee manual template developed by Farm Commons for use by farmers in all states. But these materials don’t meet all needs. The Farm Commons manual template, for example, is an excellent resource that has been used by a number of farmers and service providers in our region but does not address Massachusetts’ specific laws.

Our project built on existing resources by developing an employee manual template that contains specific information on both federal and state agricultural employment laws. The template can educate farmers about how to comply with labor laws, taking into account laws that are state-specific -- like Massachusetts laws governing earned sick time, minimum wage, and sexual harassment policies -- as well as common stumbling blocks farms face in interpreting agricultural laws, such as the applicability of overtime and minimum wage laws to different types of workers.

In CISA’s work with farmers around employee management we have encountered relatively few farmers who have developed an employee manual for their farm, and even those who have developed employee manuals often feel that their manuals could be improved. For instance, one vegetable farmer who had developed an employee manual many years before called us to seek assistance in updating his manual to make it a more effective communication tool and ensure that the farm policies therein were compliant with Massachusetts law. He had explored several online resources for developing employee manuals and had found all of them to be insufficient to meet his needs.

The manual template developed through this project goes a step further than existing templates by including not just legal information, but also information on model policies and strategies for ensuring good workplace communication. This includes information on workplace norms for open communication, conflict resolution procedures, performance reviews, regular employee check-ins, and more. The template also clearly explains the risks and benefits of using language in an employee manual that establishes specific employer obligations and/or worker protections.

In terms of employee communications, this project builds on existing or pending resources to help farmers improve labor management policies and practices, such as:

• The Cornell Farmworker Program’s guide to creating positive workplaces for dairy farmers, which includes numerous recommendations for establishing clear communication and agreements between managers and workers.

• The resources developed by the University of Vermont Extension’s “Farming Across Cultures Communication Project” with recommendations for good employee management practices on farms with Latino employees.

• The Agricultural Justice Project’s toolkit for farms interested in domestic fair-trade certification, which offers information on best labor management practices.

• The work of Vital Communities (ONE16-275), which developed additional online labor management resources for farms in Vermont’s Upper Valley.

• The tools developed by the University of Vermont's Farm Labor Dashboard, in collaboration with several other universities, including a job description-generating tool, a calculator to determine the full cost of hiring an employee, and a personnel policy manual generator. 

• CISA’s own workshops on improving on-farm communication and employee management. In winter 2020, for example, we held a series of workshops on labor management, including improving workplace culture and communication, giving effective feedback to those you manage, managing across cultures with dexterity and humility, setting clear performance expectations, resolving conflict in the workplace, and achieving workplace respect.

Our employee manual template makes it easier and more cost effective for Massachusetts farmers to update or develop an employee manual for their farm, gaining a greater understanding of agricultural labor laws and employee management best practices in the process. 



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Rachel Monette
  • Sarah Willey (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Our activities on this project include the following:

  1. Collecting and reviewing employee manuals from regional farms. Although many farms do not have employee manuals, some do. We collected manuals from eight farms.
  2. Reviewing related information and materials from other organizations, including the following in addition to a wide range of resources on federal and state employment laws:
    1. Agricultural Justice Project Toolkit of Materials and Resources for Farmers, including an employee contract template
    2. UVM’s online tool to “Generate a Personnel Policy Manual”
    3. Armstrong, Rachel. Sample Farm Employee Handbook. 2014. Farm Commons.
    4. Dudley, Mary Jo. Creating Positive Workplaces: A Guidebook for Dairy. 2015. Cornell Farmworker Program, including an employment contract template outlining basic agreements.
    5. Grubinger, Vern. Writing A Farm Employee Handbook. University of Vermont Extension. An overview of the purpose of a farm employee manual with recommendations for the types of information to include in such a manual.
    6. Moore, Stan. Agriculture Employee Handbook Template. Michigan State University Extension. An employee manual template intended for use by Michigan farmers.
    7. Wolcott-MacCausland, Naomi. Ag Labor Management with a Latino Workforce. University of Vermont Extension. A compilation of resources and recommendations for farm labor management on farms with Latino employees.
  3. Training on related topics, including the following:
    1. Cornell Cooperative Extension “Improving Agriculture Labor Management” workshops, January 2018 (best practices for human resources management)
    2. Food Justice Certification Train-the-Trainer event, April 2018 (standards for employer best practices regarding human resource policies)
    3. Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination training, October 2018
    4. Massachusetts employment law update meetings:
      1. Legal briefing by Skoler and Abbott law firm, July 2018
      2. Employment law workshop, Massachusetts Retailers Association, December 2018
    5. "Effective Management of Farm Employees" master class by the Cornell University Ag Workforce Development Program, March 2019
    6. UMass Extension's Worker Protection Standards train-the-trainer session, April 2019
    7. Regular employment law update webinars by the Employers Association of the NorthEast, 2019 and 2020
    8. Regular COVID-19-related employment law update webinars by Skoler and Abbott law firm, 2020

Note: some of these trainings pre-dated this grant, and our participation in others was funded in whole or in part through other sources, but we include them here because they are relevant to this topic and are informing our work.

  1. Gathering input from farmers: We held a workshop on human resources policies on farms in January 2018 and a workshop series on labor management in winter 2020, funded through other sources. In addition to learning from the workshop presenters, we gathered information at these workshops about current farm practices, knowledge gaps, and priority concerns. Several farmers who attended the 2018 workshop indicated that they were planning to write or update a farm employee manual. One of the farms said that they had not yet been able to proceed without additional support because “we feel very intimidated by the long list of laws to comply with and the possibility of exposing ourselves to a lawsuit if we craft the manual incorrectly.” In addition to the three farms mentioned in item 6, below, we have provided in-depth consultations to three other farmers on employment law and employee policies. While providing information to them, we also learned more about what farms need and how best to present information to them on this topic.
  2. Writing and reviewing employee manual. Our draft employee manual was reviewed by Attorney Sarah Willey. Her feedback was very positive, and we incorporated her suggestions for clarification or improvement. The manual was also reviewed by experienced farm human resources staff person, Rachel Monette.  Employee Manual Guidelines - Final 03-14-21
  3. Testing the employee manual with farmers. We worked with five farms to help them develop employee manuals appropriate for their farms. For two of these farms, we reviewed their existing employee manuals and provided detailed suggestions for updates based on our employee manual template. We met with two of the other farms to introduce our employee manual template and to assist them in using the template to develop and update employee policies for their farms; one of these farms has now completed an employee manual and the other farm has developed employee policies and taken other steps towards developing their own employee manual. The fifth farm worked independently using our template to develop employee manuals for all positions on their farm. These farms’ input and feedback has been valuable in helping us to clarify the language used in the manual and to identify the best method of presenting the information.
  4. Complete employee manual layout and online presentation. It proved to be more difficult than we had anticipated to present the employee manual template in a way that allowed users to easily find additional information without being overwhelmed and to create an editable employee manual. We are satisfied with the solutions to these challenges that we developed with help from our web designer, but reaching this point was more time-consuming than we anticipated.
  5. Disseminate employee manual template to farmers, farm support organizations, and partner organizations. This effort is ongoing. The template is now available on our website and we have sent the template to individual farmers and service providers upon request. In addition, we conducted a workshop in March 2020 on "Improving your farm's employee policies and management systems" in which we presented on the knowledge gained through this project on best practices for employee policies and distributed copies of the employee manual template to participants.
Research results and discussion:

Our efforts to develop an employee manual template confirmed our understanding that labor laws governing farms are complex and that having a state-specific, detailed and accurate template will help farms understand which policies and practices are required, which may be beneficial, and how clear communication about employee policies can improve the workplace climate. Working with farms to develop or update their individual manuals provided insight into what farms find challenging and where they need additional help. We expect that the online template will contribute to better understanding of labor laws and best practices while also saving farmers time. However, our experience demonstrates that farms are likely to continue to need support in understanding how labor regulations apply to specific on-farm situations.

Research conclusions:

Our goal was to create a tool that will help farmers comply with labor laws and regulations, understand best practices in employee policies, and communicate their policies clearly to their workers. We created an easy-to-use, plain language employee manual template that offers explanations of employee laws and best practices and that can be downloaded and adapted to become an individualized farm business employee manual. Farmers and service providers have indicated interest in using the employee manual template, and several farms have used the template to develop or update their employee manuals. We believe that the employee manual template fills a need for Massachusetts farms and will help to improve on-farm communication and labor law compliance while saving farmers time. 

Participation Summary
5 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

11 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

29 Farmers participated
1 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

CISA created an Employee Manual Template for Massachusetts farms. This is a current draft and the employee manual template will be maintained and kept up to date on our website at  Farm businesspeople can use the template to learn more about required and recommended policies and components of an employee manual. Users can select the portions of the manual they want to incorporate into their farm employee manual and can download, edit, and add to those sections in order to create a personalized employee manual.

As part of our process of developing and testing the manual, we worked with five farms to develop or update their employee manuals, provided detailed support on employee policies to an additional eight farms, and conducted a workshop in which we presented on the knowledge gained through this project and distributed copies of the employee manual template. Of 20 farmers participating in this workshop, 17 reported that they planned to make changes to their farm employee policies and management as a result of the workshop, and upon follow-up in December 2020, 11 of these farmers reported that they had developed/updated their employee manuals and written policies.

Learning Outcomes

29 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:
  • Systems for onboarding, training, and giving/receiving employee feedback
  • Legal requirements for managing employees
  • Strategies for effective workplace communication of farm policies
  • Strategies to help motivate/inspire/train employees

Project Outcomes

11 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

In this pandemic year, CISA saw an increase in inquiries and requests for assistance from farmers about labor regulations and employee management. Despite the added pressures resulting from COVID-19, we found that farms were interested in the employee manual template and willing to work with us on testing and reviewing the template.

One participating farm made improvements to their leave policies and compliance with legal requirements, such as increasing the Sunday/holiday pay rate for their retail employees, as a result of attending our workshop. They also made significant updates to their employee manual using our template as a reference. This season brought unexpected challenges -- the managers did not hire their usual seasonal staff due to the impacts of the pandemic on the farm's agritourism enterprise -- but the human resources improvements they made will significantly benefit their employee policies and communication moving forward. One of the managers commented: "I really appreciate access to this information. We made some sweeping updates to our employee manual. We are a small team, with a seasonal surge, and no human resources professional on staff. Your funder’s support of this type of programming helps us, as an employer, be fair to our workers while also protecting our business from making costly mistakes. THANK YOU!"

A second farmer used the employee manual template to create a manual in 2020. Her manual was reviewed by attorney Sarah Willey, and they recently had a follow-up call to finalize a few details. The farmer reported that "it was super helpful -- really really helpful -- to talk with her. It was quick and it was easy!" In addition, the farmer noted that the new employee manual was useful for their 2021 employee orientation.  

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Key steps in our process were the following:

  1. Increase CISA staff knowledge of employee management policy and practice and labor law using existing resources and available training.
  2. Draft employee manual and complete initial legal review.
  3. Test with farmers, then clarify language and complete second legal review and review by a farm human resources professional.

CISA's concurrent workshops on employee management and the farm workplace environment were also very beneficial to this research. Through these workshops, we had a lot more interaction with farmers about their employee management challenges and concerns. 

We are confident that the employee manual template will prove valuable to farmers across Massachusetts. We expect, however, that farmers will continue to need support in improving employee management systems and procedures, and in managing particular labor-related situations. Employee management on farms is complicated by seasonal pressures, low margins, and language, cultural, and power divides among employees and between employees and owners. Providing effective support to farmers in improving regulatory compliance and the workplace environment requires a multi-faceted approach.

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.