This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Growing for Market Magazine.
On an August morning, in the shadows of deep green trees, vegetables are lined in long, straight rows awaiting the sun’s golden light to flood the field with warmth. The roads are dusty and dry, the forecast projects triple-digit sunshine, and the chickens are fat. I carefully harvest salad mix serenaded by birds. My coworkers pick just down the row from me, calm and focused. A feeling of teamwork is in the air.
For most farmers in late August, exhaustion sits deep in our bones. But our bodies are strong, our minds resilient, and our crew works together like a well-oiled machine. The farm is at its most productive and profitable state.
All communications are clear and kind, no matter the weight of stress or lack of sleep. I feel deeply appreciated and valued by my boss. My job is fulfilling and enjoyable, and I wake each morning with a fervor for the work to be done.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I have had those same positive experiences on every farm I’ve worked for. Throughout the past five years of employment and contract fieldwork on 10 different organic vegetable farms, I’ve experienced some of the best and the worst farm management.
So, what sets them apart? How does communication and leadership create a positive (or negative) farm workplace? And how does strategic team management ultimately translate to higher (or lower) profits, productivity, and employee retention? Let’s dig in.
The missing link in agriculture
As a devoted young farmworker, food justice advocate, and future ecological farm owner, I wish I heard more of these discussions circulating through the small farm community. While many other industries have been primed toward professional and respectful workplace communication, I’ve come to realize that agricultural businesses often have a missing link in this department.
Of course, that’s because farmers are so busy farming. We are all adapting to climate- crazy weather patterns, ever-changing sales channels, sociopolitical and economic stresses, and finding time to eat and rest in between. Unless we brought these skills in from another industry, most farm folks are far more well-versed in tomato varieties or fertility regimens than workplace communication and team management. After all, most agricultural trainings, education, and degrees focus on crops and soil rather than people.
Fortunately, we have lots of science and expertise to draw on when it comes to managing our most valuable farm assets: humans.
Does poor on-farm communication affect profits?
We all have a bottom line. Whether we know it or not, leadership and workplace communication significantly affect the financial outcomes of our businesses. A global leader in management training (The Ken Blanchard Companies) recently conducted a study revealing that poor leaders can cost companies seven percent or more of their gross income. That’s because poor leaders lack the communication skills needed to clearly direct, instruct, and empower their employees, ultimately leading to huge costs in mistakes, misunderstandings, and employee turnover.
As a farmworker on so many diverse farm operations, I can say without a doubt that communication can make or break a farm, and any business for that matter. A 2016 Harvard Business Review survey of 2,000 American adults found a shocking 69 percent of managers feel uncomfortable communicating with their employees.
In the same way that I would feel uncomfortable operating a tractor implement I’ve never used before, managers who have not been trained in workplace communication are more likely to exhibit frustration and generate conflict. We can’t know what we don’t research. Some of the worst on-farm communication I’ve experienced could’ve easily been avoided through a little bit of self-education.
I’ve seen farmers screaming at the top of their lungs, writhing in anger at their workers over a small misunderstanding. I’ve seen farmers micromanage obsessively, peeking over their workers’ shoulders at every moment, not allowing them any autonomy over their tasks. I’ve also seen farmers who didn’t talk to their workers at all. Instead, they chose to passively communicate vague instructions via bullet lists or text messages, only to be upset later by the work not being executed to their liking.
On the other hand, I’ve worked for farmers who clearly demonstrate exactly how they want a job to be done. They get out in the field and set the pace of work, encouraging and teaching their workers to move faster and more efficiently. They provide a healthy mix of constructive criticism and positive feedback, and lead with integrity and compassion.
Now, can you guess which of these farms had exorbitant employee turnover rates? Or which farm had the highest financial costs due to worker mistakes? Surely it is clear which farm had the longest lasting, proactive, self-managing employees with the greatest job satisfaction.
Workplace culture starts at the top
In the reverse scenario from above, many farmers I know have had similar experiences with terrible employees. Communication, after all, is always a two-way street. We’ve all heard the stories of lazy interns, moody pack shed crews, or spaced-out fieldworkers. Sometimes workers end up being a poor fit for your farm. However, if your farm is repeatedly having bad experiences with employees, perhaps you need to address the inner workings of your hiring and management style.
While you can’t control poor work ethic or negative people, farm owners have complete control over their communication and workplace culture. Management styles start from the highest level and trickle down. How the farm owner communicates with management directly impacts how managers communicate with farmhands, in turn affecting how employees interact with each other. The same goes for very small farms, even with just one or two people. Workplace culture is created by the farmer. What culture do you want to create in and around your farm?
A domineering and intimidating manager will undoubtedly reap what they sow in team dynamics. A lack of respect for workers manifests in every aspect of the farm, no matter how pretty or famous their public image may appear (trust me, I’ve witnessed it firsthand). Nobody wants to end up with a website where previous interns or employees reveal the behind-the-scenes horrors of working at your farm.
Unfortunately, I’ve heard several farm owners glorify a “crack the whip” style of management. Considering that this phrase is a reference to slavery and also is the most ineffective form of management known, I propose we eliminate it altogether. Fear is not a leadership tactic; it is the foundation of a toxic workplace culture.
What is leadership?
Small farms need real leaders now more than ever. From climate change to corporate agribusiness to human health crises, we are up against some of the greatest challenges in history.
Plainly put, leadership is how you bring people together to accomplish a common goal.
But it goes deeper. Here are a few of my favorite leadership quotes:
“Servant leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, they don’t work for you; you work for them.” -Ken Blanchard
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” -Lao Tzu
“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” -John Maxwell
A successful leader must provide feedback to the team. Can you recall the last time you gave feedback to one of your workers? Whether it was positive or critical, you likely remember the response. According to workplace surveys, providing any type of feedback tends to be one of the most uncomfortable tasks for managers. In fact, many managers dread it so much that they avoid it altogether.
Yet, workers thrive on feedback. Without it, we have absolutely no way to gauge our performance. Are our kale bunches too big or too small? Are we moving too slowly or are we going too fast and missing ripe snap peas? Are we being too meticulous with our weeding or do you prefer 100 percent clean beds? Is it driving you crazy when we don’t perform a task your way? Please tell us. Better yet, show us. We cannot read your mind.
I have worked alongside dozens of farmworkers on farms of all types and scales, and one of the most common complaints I hear is lack of feedback. Workers need your input in order to grow and improve. Most folks in farming, especially young people, genuinely want to learn to be better at their jobs. Even negative feedback, better known as constructive criticism, is something that most workers will gladly accept. That is, as long as it’s presented in a kind and respectful way and balanced out with positive feedback.
Remember, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
A farm manager once told me about the “compliment sandwich” method that she learned in the retail industry. She said that she likes to sandwich constructive criticism between two pieces of positive feedback. She never says anything like, “You are a slow worker and you are never going to make it in farming if you can’t move faster.” Sadly enough, I’ve seen a farmer make an apprentice cry with similar feedback.
Instead she says, “Your chard bunches looked gorgeous today, however, we need to pick up the pace with our morning greens harvest. Could you try moving faster and keep up the awesome aesthetics and uniformity? Thank you!”
It’s really that simple. Both phrases get the same point across (you need to harvest faster), but the latter is just plain nicer. The worker walks away empowered and motivated even though they just received criticism. Bonus points for going out to the chard patch and offering to show them a few tricks for faster picking.
Your feedback doesn’t have to feel awkward or forced, just keep it positive, straight- forward, and compassionate. These simple changes in communication make a huge difference on small farms. That is, the difference between a highly efficient, motivated harvester or a crying unmotivated apprentice.
Psychology of worker motivation
It’s no secret that people thrive on appreciation, especially in a field as challenging as agriculture. It feels so rewarding when customers thank you for growing flowers that brighten their day or wholesome produce that nurtures their family. If nobody ever thanked you for your hard work as a farmer, would you feel as motivated to keep growing?
Positive psychologist Beata Souders asserts “lack of appreciation is psychologically exhausting.” If we don’t feel valued or appreciated for what we have to offer, we lose incentive to push ourselves to our fullest potential.
We’ve all had bosses who only magnify the negative, no matter how well the business is doing. Deflated workers who rarely (if ever) receive positive feedback are more likely to work without enthusiasm, attention to detail, or the desire to go above and beyond. They’re also less likely to stick around. This sort of workplace culture translates to less productivity, reduced energy, and a lack of cooperation.
Research firm BambooHR conducted a study of 1,000 U.S. workers across industries and found that 82 percent don’t think they are recognized for their work as often as they deserve. Another randomized workplace study found that lack of appreciation from management was employees’ number one complaint. Even another study found that 69 percent of employees say they would work harder if they felt their efforts were appreciated.
Worker recognition through positive reinforcement is different than financial incentives.
Offering incremental pay raises, upward mobility, and end-of-season bonuses are certainly effective means of motivating workers on farms; however, improving your communication can be equally as productive and arguably just as important. Plus, it’s free.
We all want to work in a positive, drama-free workplace where we feel valued.
Souders reminds us that “feedback satisfies the psychological need for competence. When others value our work, we tend to appreciate it more and work harder.” For any passionate and dedicated worker, this is no surprise. Of course, I am going to work harder and faster when I know that my employer recognizes and appreciates my hard work. Positive reinforcement is empowering and inspires us to work toward our highest potential. Moreover, studies show that recognition can even improve employees’ health by lowering stress levels.
Souders emphasizes that “immediate, specific, and public praise focusing on effort and behavior” is the most effective form of positive reinforcement. I would add that publicly shaming workers for their shortcomings in a team setting is the least effective form of feedback.
So, how does this work in a real field setting? Jayne Senecal, owner of Earth Care Farm in Rhode Island, gives positive feedback to her team of five employees by setting aside 15 minutes in the morning and 15 at the end of the day. “The manager needs to compliment the team often and highlight all the accomplishments the team has done together,” she says. “My end of day send off is ‘I appreciate this team.’”
The power of check-ins
In his recent team management workshop, Jean-Martin Fortier recommends scheduling incremental check-ins (daily, weekly, bi-seasonally) with your crew throughout the season. The best farm managers I have worked for set aside time for both private and communal discussions that offer people space to share their opinions, emotions, and concerns. As a manager, you can also provide feedback or appreciation at that time.
My most rewarding farm jobs had check-ins that included: 1) positive reinforcement, 2) genuine appreciation for my help on the farm, and 3) constructive criticism like “compliment sandwiches.” And admittedly, tasty snacks, too.
If you don’t create a safe and honest space for check-ins, workers may feel the need to initiate their own way to touch base and get feedback. One summer my husband and I worked on a small market farm while the farmers took a pregnancy leave. Because we knew the farmers would be absent much of the time, we made significant efforts to check in with them every two weeks. I asked them, “How are things going?” and “Is there anything we can improve on?” Every time, they answered something along the lines of “things are great, everything is good” and changed the topic.
At the end of our contract, we approached the farmers to get feedback on our performance. They suddenly exploded with frustrations and problems that we never knew existed. The rug was completely pulled out from under us. This is perhaps one of the most frustrating experiences as a farmworker. You thought you were doing an awesome job because no one ever told you differently, but then you reach the end of the season and the farmer suddenly reveals a laundry list of grievances that they never brought to your attention. The past events become jaded by accusations, defensiveness, and old emotions that they let fester instead of expressing them in the moment.
This is all to say, check-ins are not productive if you avoid talking about the issues at hand. If you have an issue with a worker’s performance, you need to address it as soon as possible. Sugarcoating or avoiding the issue altogether will only result in greater tension and less productivity. It may be uncomfortable for both you and your employee, but it’s worth it in the long haul.
“Feeding people half-truths or [BS] to make them feel better (which is almost always about making ourselves feel more comfortable) is unkind.” -Dr. Brene Brown
If you practice clear and respectful communication with your employees, difficult conversations will be that much easier. There will also be less farm drama.
Workers will be more receptive to feedback and feel comfortable coming to you with any issues that may come up. Check-ins aid in the process of building trust and open lines of communication.
Communication and inclusion
Evidently, a positive workplace culture is built on clear and kind communication.
Statistics show that 57 percent of employees across all workplaces report not being given clear directions. This is the easiest place to start improving.
“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” -Dr. Brene Brown
Fortier also presents excellent ideas for creating positive farm culture in his three-part video workshop How to Hire & Inspire to Avoid Meltdowns On the Farm. He draws on more than a decade of experience managing apprentices and employees on three different farms. Fortier schedules a team building day in the beginning of the season. Any sort of teamwork activity, sports, games, or communal meal can help create a farm setting that’s fun and comfortable so people can really open up and be themselves. By allowing people to feel accepted for who they are as part of the team, you create a farm culture of respect and mutual support.
He follows up the team building experience with a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) workshop. NVC methods help people look clearly at a situation, express their feelings, share what they need, and create an action to move forward. These types of workshops don’t need to be complex or expensive; they just require setting a date and using resources that are readily available in books and online.
Another way Fortier creates a culture of teamwork and inclusion is through involving workers in the big picture. Every Monday morning, he writes the tasks, goals, and to-do lists on a large whiteboard that the whole team can see. He readily accepts contributions and ideas from his team.
“Serving people means growing their capacity and implies that everyone can contribute.”-Juana Bordas
When people see what’s going on on the farm as a whole, they have a greater sense of their role on the team. Teaching your employees to think in the farmer’s mindset enriches their learning experience and allows them to own their tasks.
“Workers realize that jobs on our farm are like dominoes, and if one takes longer than necessary, it falls on all the other jobs behind it and pushes them back, too.” -Andrew Mefferd
In addition, meeting at the board and crossing off completed tasks is intrinsically rewarding. It makes employees feel empowered, engaged, and accomplished. This is a great example of how effective team leadership really fosters productivity and efficiency. This approach embodies the clear communication and inclusion necessary for a positive farm workplace because it inspires employees to get things done and see what else is needed to accomplish the larger farm vision.
“You are either supporting the vision or supporting division.” – Saji Ijiyemi
I personally have never experienced this level of team building and leadership on a farm, but I would be so excited to have that opportunity. Fortier knows what he’s talking about, and the effectiveness of his management style is obvious in the success of his farming career.
Farmworker and farm manager insights
I am just one of an estimated 2.4 million farmworkers in this country, of which about 50 percent are undocumented immigrants. I am white, female, and college-educated. Given my privilege and demographic, my experience has obviously been very different from other workers.
In writing this article, I decided to reach out to a diverse range of farmworkers, managers, and farm owners from different regions and scales of farms. I received 50 responses to my Instagram survey, and an additional five responses to my personal queries. I asked: What makes for a positive farm workplace? And how can communication and team management on farms be improved?
I selected a few quotes to share below and categorized the overall survey responses based on key phrases (shown in graph). It’s obvious that “clear communication” and “acknowledgment” or “appreciation” are the most common requests from farmworkers. In addition, the question “Do you wish you received more feedback as a farmworker” received a resounding 100 percent “yes.”
One farm owner emphasized that “acknowledgment of effort [creates a positive farm workplace]. People need to feel like what they are doing is important.”
Another farmer, with a background in the restaurant industry, said “listen, implement changes, and leave your ego outside.”
Senecal of Earth Care Farm responded: “Remember that mistakes are inevitable [and] need to be addressed right away, but not in a way that brings shame. I find that usually a mistake is a way to highlight a system on the farm that needs improving. Managers can take those mistakes to get the whole team thinking about how to improve a system. Our best changes on the farm have come from these mistakes. Empower your team to share their ideas and then try them out.”
Five key take-aways
Ultimately, the ingredients for a positive farm workplace are simple:
Recognition and positive reinforcement. If you forget everything else covered in this article, at least remember to recognize your workers’ achievements and regularly offer positive reinforcement. Notice when people succeed, rather than only magnifying their mistakes.
Schedule regular check-ins, both one-on-one and with the whole team. Create a safe space to air out disputes and celebrate team accomplishments.
Set the example (not “do as I say not as I do”). If you have not thoroughly demonstrated the way you want something done, don’t expect it to be done exactly to your liking.
Clearly and respectfully provide feedback without causing shame or embarrassment. Treat mistakes as a learning opportunity for how to improve farm systems.
Research and learn about team management, nonviolent communication, and how to be an empowering leader. The resources are out there, we just need to prioritize them.
Logan Hailey is a young female farmer and writer with a zest for living soils, vibrant vegetables, food justice, and ecological small farms. She travels in her off-grid school bus tiny home with her partner and three dogs, offering skilled freelance farmhand services via their mobile company Ramblin Farmers, LLC. As they ramble and farm, they are searching for a place to put down roots and start a farm of their own.