Progress report for ONE18-311

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

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

Project Objectives:

Our project’s objective is to provide Massachusetts farmers and service providers with a legally-sound and farm-relevant employee manual template that can be tailored to the needs of individual farms. The manual template will also set 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.

Specifically, we will:

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.

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.


There are several existing resources to help farms and other businesses in developing employee manuals. These resources have limitations but can serve as a building block for the template we are developing. 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.

We believe that our project can build on existing resources by developing an employee manual template that contains specific information on both federal and state agricultural employment laws. This template will help 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 will go one 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 could include information on workplace norms for open communication, conflict resolution procedures, performance reviews, regular employee check-ins, and more. The template will also clearly explain 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 will build 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 will develop additional online labor management resources for farms in Vermont’s Upper Valley.

• The tools developed by the University of Vermont, in collaboration with several other universities, including a job description-generating tool and a calculator to determine the full cost of hiring an employee. The project team has also begun work on an employee handbook.

• CISA’s own workshop on improving on improving on-farm communication. This workshop covers a variety of tools and strategies for communication, including employee manuals, orientations, performance reviews, and methods for encouraging feedback from employees.

Our proposed manual template will be designed to make 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. There is a clear need for improved assistance to guide farms in this process.



Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Rachel Monette
  • Sarah Willey (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Our activities on this project to date 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 8 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. MA employment law update meetings:
      1. Legal briefing by Skoler and Abbott law firm, July 2018
      2. Employment law workshop, Massachusetts Retailers Association, December 2018

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, funded through other sources. In addition to learning from the presenters, we gathered information at this workshop about current farm practices, knowledge gaps, and priority concerns. Several farmers who attended 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 has been reviewed by Attorney Sarah Willey. Her feedback was very positive, and we incorporated her suggestions for clarification or improvement. The manual is now undergoing a second review by Attorney Sarah Willey, as well as by an experienced farm human resources staff person, Rachel Monette.
  3. Testing the employee manual with farmers. We have worked with three farms to help them develop employee manuals appropriate for their farms. For one of these farms, we reviewed their existing employee manual and provided detailed suggestions for updates based on our employee manual template. For the other two farms, we met with them to introduce our employee manual template and to assist them in using the template to develop and update employee policies for their farms; both farms have now taken steps towards developing their own employee manual. 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.

Next steps:

  1. Incorporate changes in employee manual based on input from farmers and second review by Sarah Willey and by Rachel Monette.
  2. Develop employee manual layout and presentation online.
  3. Disseminate employee manual to farmers, farm support organizations, and partner organizations.
Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
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.