Retaining employees in a challenging farm economy

Promoting from within rather than hiring from outside for senior positions fosters more loyalty.

July 25, 2023

4 Min Read
Patrick Bane with Employee.jpg
National Pork Board

Owners and managers of hog farms continue to face challenges in hiring — and keeping — employees for their operations. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed in the year from September 2021 to 2022 the total value of wages paid to workers on hog farms increased by 12.1% — but the number of employees still declined by about 0.4%.

While Carthage Veterinary Service doesn't have all the answers, we believe we can shed some insight on how to attract and keep quality employees that might work at your farm or business. We have been able to grow rapidly in recent years thanks to a "people strategy" that includes detailed recruiting and retention practices.

First, understand what you have to offer prospective employees. It requires thinking about what they want, not only what you need. Many employees want to see themselves as more than a cog in a machine — working in a career, not just a job.

Because the employment market is so tight, be mindful of what you are selling and what you're putting out there. Carthage used to post job openings; then we decided to pivot from "we need a technician" toward "we're looking for someone who wants to grow and stay with us." So, we tweak our postings to better seek career-minded individuals.

To this end, we developed a structured career path for farm production employees. An entry-level hire knows the expected goals of their first year with respect to task certifications, title changes/promotions, pay raises and addition of responsibilities. By their first anniversary, they've qualified for 100 certifications and are on the path of a skill-based career.

In recruiting, when you can show someone you have a plan for them — that "we don't want you just for labor" — it appeals to human nature, since people want to stay where they feel needed and valued. We also promote frequently within the company; so far this year we have promoted eight people to farm manager roles, for instance. It's a smart strategy, since no one knows our company better than our own employees, and promoting from within rather than hiring from outside for senior positions fosters more loyalty.

Another thing that obviously appeals is compensation. Make sure your candidates understand their complete benefits package and don't only see the wages. Carthage has increased its entry-level hourly pay to be competitive, but also offers a retirement plan, health and life insurance, paid time off, 401(k) and additional perks. In addition, we communicate often the overall value of the whole package.

Culture and understanding
Many of our on-farm employees are international hires, since the rural citizens around those operations are moving to urban and suburban areas. Carthage hires five types of federal visa holders — TN, H-1B, J-1, H-2 and refugee — for itself and also on behalf of small-scale, independent farm clients who may only need one to a few people.

We strive to welcome both citizen and immigrant employees in several ways. One way is providing onboarding training. Instead of expecting them to catch up to experienced co-workers on their first day, Carthage maintains an onboarding farm where the new employee will spend their first week learning the ropes before being transferred to their "home" farm. People who have never been up close to a pig are coached on how to handle the animals, give shots, load the truck, use a sort board and the like, and they can ask questions in a setting surrounded by others who may be at their same level of newness.

Another way we encourage camaraderie is through a companywide TV system. We use this to highlight production and metrics achieved, celebrate anniversaries, do engagement surveys and feature individuals' successes as promotions and recognition. This connects production employees across the six states in which we operate, as well as to our corporate office — those working in the office to support their on-farm colleagues can get to know more about what they do, who they are and put faces to names.

Pork production is a rapid business, and it's easy to get caught up in your own tasks, so it’s good to remind people from time to time that "hey, we really are a good place to work."

Don't forget to have fun! We urge the farms across our six states to tailor local celebrations such as picnics, holiday festivities, field trips to mazes or pumpkin patches and parties, all of which helps to culturally solidify a diverse team. As one example, Americans take for granted costumes on Halloween, but a lot of other countries don't celebrate this and it's one good way to invite others into our culture.

Cultural exchange goes both ways. As one example, each fall we host a bonfire and ask each employee to bring a homemade dish of their own culture and tell why it's important to them. Our J-1 visa holders make a presentation before they go back home about what they've learned during their year here both professionally and personally.

When it comes down to it, we all want to be part of something bigger — people want to stay where they think they have a future. They want to be valued. If you focus on that, you've got a great start.

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