Scoring suitable staff who stick around

Minnesota producers share their secrets for keeping high-quality labor.

Ann Hess, Content Director

February 20, 2020

16 Min Read
During the noon hour, Wakefield employees often play card games that can get pretty intense. Co-owner Mary Langhorst says eve
During the noon hour, Wakefield employees often play card games that can get pretty intense. Co-owner Mary Langhorst says even if the card games go longer than an hour, it always seems like the team makes it up at the end of the day because they have a lot of camaraderie.Courtesy of Wakefield Pork

When Wakefield Pork employees were recently asked to describe in one word what it's like to work for the Gaylord, Minn.-based producer, the word that came to mind most often from their 275 employees was "family."

Mary Langhorst, along with her husband, Steve, and son, Lincoln, owns Wakefield Pork, which cares for 55,000 sows and markets more than 1.4 million hogs each year. She acknowledges the pork production system has been able to retain a strong, talented base of employees over the years.

The company has always tried to keep in mind the belief, "People don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care."

While Wakefield Pork has had success with keeping strong team members, it's often said across the industry, "Pigs are easy; people are the hard part." Hiring and retaining employees remains one of the top challenges that continues to plague U.S. pork production, and thus the reason Langhorst was asked to join a roundtable discussion on the topic at the 2019 Allen D. Leman Swine Conference.

She was joined by Brandon Schafer, a sixth-generation producer and general manager at Schafer Farms. Based in Goodhue, Minn., the 2,200-sow operation is located across two sites and produces 61,000 pigs per year, with a focus toward multiplication. In his family-operated business, Schafer has two children working with him, but he also employs around 12 to 13 people, with five currently being "TN visa" status (Treaty NAFTA visa holders).

Rounding out the panel was Tim Fossen, director of human resources for Christensen Farms. Headquartered in Sleepy Eye, Minn., Christensen Farms is one of the largest family-owned pork producers in the U.S. The pork production company spans across the Midwest and operates three feed mills, manages 148,000 sows on 44 farms, and oversees more than 350 nurseries and grow-finish sites. Christensen Farms employs 950 to 1,000 people, as well as works with hundreds of contract growers.

During the session, the panelists fielded several questions from the audience and shared their secrets to success for scoring suitable staff, as well as how they keep this staff part of their pork production teams for years to come.

In your opinion, is there a healthy turnover rate?

Langhorst: I do believe it's healthier to have some turnover just for the fact that if the person isn't right, they aren't in the wrong position. I think there has to be some turnover, but I do believe tenure on a farm for us seems to be more advantageous.

Fossen: I think it's always a challenge to say what the healthy rate of turnover is. Certainly, as you have an organization that continues to try to move up production levels, there is a constant need for improvement, which is not everybody's natural behavior. To do that, you need to manage and balance performance, ultimately to ensure a positive work environment. Oddly enough, one of the most challenging things that I think that I've found, since being new to the industry, is pig farmers are not necessarily great about talking about their relationships. That's one of the most important things that happens on a farm between a manager and employee, and that's really where the sweet spot is: being able to have those conversations.

Schafer: I think there is a dimension of a healthy turnover. I also think it's very critical to have a part of the staff that is gaining valuable experience to lead through the next set of challenges. We talk a lot about the dynamics of group formation with our team. This has been especially important as we've brought in the TNs that may not speak our language, and all the inherent challenges that come along with that. Every group goes through a formation phase ["honeymoon"] before the storming starts. It's the group that understands how to navigate the storm that are far more apt to find their way to the normalization of the new team-positive culture, and then move on to the performing realm.

Saul Reyes (right) talks through production data and records with Ron Lexvold (left) at Schafer Farms’ sow farm near Goodhue, Minn.

Are you doing special programs for TNs outside of work — those who want to develop and learn more?

Fossen: I think one of the unique things that Christensen Farms is doing relative to this is, we have employee resource groups. We have a Women's LEAPP [learn, empower, achieve, passion, purpose] organization, as well as a Latino LEAPP organization. These are employee-run and -driven focus groups where they're talking about and supporting each other in the areas they need. For the TN population, it could be basic things around assimilating to a community to getting a driver's license, as well as their career progression.

Schafer: Outside of work, it comes down to, how do I live in this country? When they come into the States, they have an international driver's license, and it lasts 60 days. On the 61st day, they no longer have a driver's license, just because of the way the legal process works. In our system, that's a really hard timeline to achieve within, so we find ourselves doing what we can to assist them in getting to their social events, understanding their religious affiliations, making sure they know when church services are, and do our best in the workplace to get them the opportunity to get to those. Then, furthermore, just understanding what their social circle at home looks like, their family and friends; and we've gotten to the point we provide our TNs housing. We've set up wireless internet for them and have done those things just to allow them that connection.

Brandon, with bringing two kids back to the operation recently, would you mind sharing what that process was like, some things that worked really well and areas that you wish you would've done differently?

Schafer: I'm the sixth generation; however, I'm the first generation that has two participants. I guess I've maybe come through the "school of hard knocks" a little bit on how that can work, and I will say we don't have that all figured out either. Communication is critical. You have to have a boss hat, and you have to have a dad hat, and you wear them both at different times. Direct and honest feedback — make sure that they are treated no different than the teacher's kid or the principal's kid or the coach's kid; they just happen to be the boss' kid or the owner's kid today. Sometimes that's their hat to wear and sometimes not so comfortable, either, but [I] don't go to the position of making it more comfortable than it needs to be. Allow them to advance on their merit, not on their name. Make them be what they are intended to be. If they have the ability to move through the ranks and find their way to the top, great; but just because they happen to have blood in the game, that doesn't really afford them the opportunity to climb there before they're ready.

Mary, are there some non-negotiables of onboarding? Or, what are the key components to onboarding a new employee that you think make it successful?

Langhorst: I think No. 1 is our "rookie guru," which is the person that will be at the farm — not the manager, not the department lead — but anybody that's kind of the friendly jokester in the whole situation, so that they [new employees] can feel comfortable to ask questions about anything! Due to biosecurity measures, we ask people coming on board to shower into our barns and wear farm-provided clothing. Those are probably some of the simple, basic things on our onboarding that we do, and then it's basically a 30-, 60-, 90-day review process as well; but it's also just having a friend there that can also help train them.

Mary, the other thing I've seen you do well is promote people, and then realize they're in the wrong position. Almost everybody else seems to lose those people from the system, and you've been able to keep them and redirect them and really salvage careers. Is there a key to that?

Langhorst: By listening to them and hearing what it is important to them. Usually, people know if they're in a manager position or a lead position, and if it's not a comfortable situation, that they aren't feeling comfortable talking to their employees about different situations. Confrontation is always the biggest word as far as they just don't want to be confrontational, but they're very good people. So yes, we do have several managers that are no longer managers that are very important in our system, and are still there.

For the people who are leaving your farm, is that mostly volunteer versus nonvolunteer leaving? Then, secondly, do you do any sort of exit survey or questionnaires, so you know where the people that are not being fired, where they're going, and why they're leaving the farm?

Langhorst: I think the majority of the people that do leave the farm are always people that want to be closer to home. It just seems like as parents age or need help and assistance, a lot of times they're leaving for that reason. This may sound out of the ordinary but, I do all 260-employee review processes every year with each one of our employees. That's a big task. But you know what? I think it means a lot to the employees for the fact of being heard, that somebody knows where they want to go in their career; and it's also an opportunity to say, "Hey, maybe that's not your strength. Maybe you should be looking at different options" — so, kind of heading off the problem before it gets any farther.

Fossen: At Christensen Farms, I think most of our turnover would be voluntary — where somebody elects to leave — and so rather than focusing on exit interviews, as people have already made their decision, we've started to do more "stay interviews." So, connecting with our current employees, asking them what gives them energy to come into work, what's demotivating, what's creating those bad days, and then creating actions against those so that there's mutual accountability to help move them in the right direction.

Schafer: One of the challenges that we face in the smaller system that we've got is, there's not a lot of alternative places for people to go — so we are pretty direct and candid. However, I think we've worked pretty hard at breaking down roles and responsibilities to allow people to feel that sense of growth. In a starting position, there isn't a real broad base. It's very defined, and they probably have limited control over their daily responsibilities; but as they advance and prove themselves, we're pretty quick to release and allow trust to take hold.

Have you done anything with different types of work schedules, helping mothers or any types of work schedules to help some of the turnover rate?

Schafer: We're a two-sow farm system. We batch-farrow, so if you want to know anything about crazy scheduling conflicts, that will give it to you. Whether it's religious affiliation or family needs, we try to understand what those desires are. We found it to be important to consider those family needs; but on the same token, there's some legal bounds that we need to stay within to assure that all teammates are afforded those same opportunities. And sometimes, you just have to say no.

Fossen: I would say we've learned our lesson on scheduling. We've tried to be a little bit more directive with all of our farms to drive some consistency. We learned that approach didn't always make the most sense. Now we have leaned more toward allowing what we deem as more appropriate, which is for the farms and the farm managers to make those decisions. Of course, on our sow farms, with wean schedules and different things like that, oftentimes there may not be the flexibility that's desired from all the workforce. But we've certainly learned our lesson to ensure managers have the autonomy to make those decisions on what's appropriate for them and their teams.

Langhorst: We've tried with moms for the wean days — say Monday, Wednesday, Friday — where they just come in those days. That has been kind of something that has worked for us, but I'll tell you that most of those ladies usually have requested full time after a certain amount of time. One thing that I can say on schedules is, our farms play card games, and they play them over their noon hour. The games can be intense, and sometimes when I come to the farm and I may want to ascertain kind of an important topic, I have to wait until the card games are over. What's amazing to me is, it doesn't seem to matter if those card games go longer than that hour, it seems like they'll make it up at the end of the day, because they just have a lot of camaraderie with each other. I think the camaraderie within our group is kind of what makes us tick.

What kind of programs or activities do you have in place for the TN professionals to help them integrate into the communities where they are living?

Fossen: One of the things we do is, we've got our recruiting team that helps to manage their transition from home country into their local community. That really starts through the recruiting process, and helping them to identify the location and the area they're going to be living and working, so they can do their own research. As they come onboard, driving them to their locations they'll be working at, helping them with grocery shopping, setting them up in their houses, identifying the library, as well as a resource that will help bring them back and forth from home to farm until they can get their driver's license. In addition to that, as I mentioned before, we've started a Latino ERG group, or employee resource group, that also creates kind of a community of help and support for those who have already come through the program, and have been working with us for a number of years, to kind of show them the ropes as well.

Schafer: We were very fortunate with one of our first two TN hires. He was bilingual and just had an incredible skill set, too. We call him "Papa Saul," and truly, that's how everybody looks at him. He's like a dad away from home. He's younger than a lot of the TNs that we have, however; he just has that personality. When he came, obviously, there was a lot of engagement on my part and the balance of our leadership team to get those first two individuals assimilated into our community. But quite frankly, he is taking it, and really, it just became his job. It wasn't something we asked him to do — it is just his personality, so we were very, very fortunate.

Have you considered what might happen when millennials start to enter the workforce? A lot of the data I'm seeing is saying that millennials will work well into their 70s, and they'll have between 10 and 14 jobs in their careers, and they'll consider long-term loyalty in a role as being seven years with a company. Have you thought about the impact that might have on onboarding, and development of skills and training?

Langhorst: You work with each person. I always think there's a name for millennials, but not every millennial is alike, and that's something I've found. Sometimes they get a bad rap in how we talk about them, and I don't think that's always fair. The Gen[eration] Z is entering our workforce now.

Schafer: One thing that we've got in our interview and vetting process, whether it's a TN or a domestic employee candidate, is one of those questions — and so far, we've probably done 40 different interviews in the last five to seven years — is, tell us about your best boss ever. One hundred percent of those people have told us that the boss trusted them. If you stop and think about that, it seems simple; but there are so many people in the workforce that feel like they're just under the thumb all the time. I guess that's really instilled that kind of a value proposition for us is how we instill that into our team, and, hopefully, that's going to have the most positive impact on our turnovers. If they feel the trust and the autonomy to do their work, do the things that we want them to do and then reward them for having done it, I think we all stand to win. Whether it's this generation or those to come, I think that one is going to ring true — no matter what age demographic we're working with here.

Fossen: Every generation comes in with their own unique differences, and at the end of the day, it becomes about the relationship and the conversation to make sure you can meet what the needs are of the new people coming in. I would say one thing that's happening right now in the industry is, there's more and more technology: the advancements in the use of technology and making it accessible for the younger generations from nearly Day 1, which will be helpful in terms of bridging that gap on skills that are needed on the farm.

Schafer: We've brought some of those millennials in, and for the most part on our sow farms, we've gone — at least from an action list standpoint — to paperless. It's actually kind of fun to watch as they adopt that technology. All we use is Google Sheets. It's nothing fancy. They plug in a spreadsheet and download off our working software, and every day they're inspired to go, "How'd we do today? What was the stillborn rate overnight last night? What was our live-born?" It kind of comes back to that trust factor. We've allowed them to pull up the tablet, they started doing records, they're doing what they're supposed to do; and at the end of the day, the data is there, and it's immediate. We found that to be pretty motivating, especially as you look at the younger generation.

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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