What is the secret sauce to scoring quality employees?

Attracting and keeping good employees is a common problem on the farm and across the entire pork industry. Human resource directors share tips on scoring quality employees and retaining them.

January 19, 2018

18 Min Read
What is the secret sauce to scoring quality employees?
Today new hires are looking to work for companies that care for employees and society.The Maschhoffs

Pigs need a passionate caretaker and so do America’s pig farms. Attracting and keeping good employees is a common problem on the farm and across the entire pork industry. There must be a secret sauce to scoring quality employees and retaining them.

Talking with hog producers, most will say pigs are easy, and people are hard. It is not that the people working in the barns are hard to deal with; it is the lack of available workers willing to take on a labor-intensive occupation.

A recent study by AgCareers.com and commissioned by the National Pork Board shows that compensations and human resources practices in the pork industry are competitive with comparable industries.

The producers participating in the survey represented 281 pork operations. Of the respondents, 41% were independent growers, 35% were integrators, and 24% were contract growers. For the survey, large operations represented farms with 25,000 or more sows. Midsized operations had fewer than 25,000 sows in production or more than 1,000 head in finishing. Small to midsized farms were defined as being of a significant size to employ full-time employees other than family members, NPB notes.

The results show that 57% of pork operations pay between $9.51 and $12.50 per hour for starting animal caretakers with no swine experience. For caretakers with at least five years experience, 47% are more likely to earn $12.50 to $15.50 per hour. For managers’ wages, the survey shows 35% of assistant managers receive $30,000 to $40,000 annually, and 45% of farm managers earn $40,000 to $60,000.

Across the industry, 38% of full-time caretakers work 41 to 45 hours per work week, whereas 26% work 46 to 50 hours. Of the respondents, 55% of employees receive two weekends off per month, and an additional 16% receive three weekends off per month.

According to the study, bonuses are the most popular tool used to keep employees motivated and challenged in their roles, with 58% of farms offering this benefit. Other incentives include flexible hours, and training and development.

Looking at benefit packages, the majority of the farms offer a traditional paid vacation and sick program. Over half of the hog operations offer employees training and development opportunities and some medical coverage. A bonus program is a part of the employee benefits package of 50% of the operations surveyed, with 32% of the farms basing the incentive on pigs weaned per sow per year.

The rate of employee turnover for larger producers is 35% for pig caretakers but only 9.12% for managers. For small to midsized producers, the turnover rate is 20% for pig caretakers and 9.26% for managers.

The survey serves as a benchmark for the pork industry, giving producers an understanding on how their farms compared to the national average. It also illustrates that wages are above the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and in line with the majority of states with a higher minimum wage.

Ask HR directors

Employee turnover happens for various reasons, and it is costly and disruptive to a farm’s operations. Just as important as retaining employees is filling every available position, especially in a growing company. So if wages are not the center of the problem of recruiting and keeping good employees, then what diverts people from working in the swine business?

Turning to individuals responsible for filling vacancies and employment relations, National Hog Farmer asked human resources directors to share the challenges, the wins and gaps in finding quality pig caretakers.


Josh Flint is the associate director of communications, talent acquisition and retention at The Maschhoffs, the ninth-largest hog production company in the world, with a culture embedded in family values. Together with their production partners and family-owned farms, The Maschhoffs produces enough pork to feed 16 million people annually.

The Maschhoffs is owned by the fifth-generation of the Maschhoff family and is headquartered in Carlyle, Ill., with farms across nine states and more than 200,000 sows.

Flint says, “I want people to realize that you can make a good salary in the pig industry, even without a four-year degree. The compensation is there for people willing to apply themselves, develop and get to where they want to go. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s a challenge just to get them in the door.”

In corporate America, research and exit interviews show that beyond families relocating, employees leave their jobs due to these reasons:

■ having a bad boss or manager

■ being bored or unchallenged by the work

■ experiencing poor relationships with co-workers

■ not being able to develop skills

■ not contributing toward the organization’s business goals

■ not having independence

■ wanting to do meaningful work

■ disliking company culture

■ not receiving recognition

Although working in agriculture is not the same as a job in corporate America, people are still people.

Today, new hires are looking to work for companies that care for employees and society. A company’s culture that meshes with workers’ personal values draws them in and keeps them as employees long term.

Employees, especially the younger workforce, want to be part of something bigger than them. So, they want to work for a company that contributes to the greater good. The extra perks such as team-building experiences, family events and community service projects are more appealing than a 401(k) plan.


A career in pigs offers opportunities for everyone. The technology alone is appealing. Yet, the occupation is often overlooked. Robin Davis is the chief people officer for Hord Family Farms in Bucyrus, Ohio. The company holds on to its deep family roots, with three generations on the farm. In 1987, Duane and Pat Hord added several thousand sows and significant amounts of infrastructure to grow the business.

As an industry, Davis says, “We need to get our story out there more. People do not know there is so much technology or it is such a fulfilling career. If we can together get the word out there, then we can attract a whole different segment of the population.”


Heidi Vittetoe is the general manager of J.W. Vittetoe Pork Ltd. For four generations, the Vittetoe family has been growing pigs in Washington County, Iowa, and the surrounding area. More than 80 employees join the family on four sow farms, a feed mill and market pig production.

Together, with their 190 employees and 300 grower-partners, they raise hogs, cattle and grain in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Starting out in 1990 with less than 100 sows, the Hord team has added to their sow herd and significant amounts of infrastructure to grow the business to a little under 30,000 sows in two states.

Getting candidates’ attention

Each person responsible for recruiting new employees to the swine business agrees that the old ways are not working today. Attracting new employees to a company requires a different strategy beyond posting an ad in the newspaper. It requires thinking differently.

Word-of-mouth and a simple sign posted on the main farm off a major highway yields more potential candidates than official postings in local newspapers for JWV Pork. Nevertheless, people talk. If current workers are happy and non-workers see that employees are treated well, then the good word gets out. However, so does any negative talk. So, striving to build a work culture that speaks for itself will reap its reward.

Compensation is important, but so are the extra benefits. For example, in 2017 JWV Pork offered its staff a Christmas account that paid a slightly better interest rate than a local bank. It helps the company fill a need and helps workers save for their family.

“It costs us a little something, but for the sense of helping someone with better financial control than living paycheck to paycheck, that has been a real plus,” Vittetoe says.

A few years ago, employee turnover was higher than they thought it should be at Hord Family Farms. Hord started gaining ground by adopting an overall strategy to try new things and be more intentional about recruiting. It is about building relationships. The farm formed a partnership with a new agency and the local schools to gain access to new groups of people.

In 2017, Hord started hosting more tours for teachers and schools groups, hoping to get more students upon graduation. “It isn’t something we placed emphasis on before. We traditionally focused more attention on college students through job fairs,” Davis says.

Similar to JWV Pork, word-of-mouth and opportunities to tell Hord’s story at job fairs and other events generate more worthy candidates than placing a classified ad. Since people place a higher value on a company’s value and culture than a paycheck, it is necessary to show the real side of the company.

The Maschhoffs is also switching things up. Flint says agriculture often looks inside the industry at what works, but it pays off to look toward other business segments. He says, “I like to look at companies in the U.S. that are best at it. So, I am looking at Amazon and Netflix, trying to see what they are doing that is different.”

One example of how other industries have influenced The Maschhoffs is in its shift away from relying on newspaper advertising. Today, The Maschhoffs relies more on job boards and social media. Flint says that’s because almost every adult uses a smartphone.

More than 80% of U.S. adults have a Facebook account, and many are on more than one social media platform. So, The Maschhoffs shifted its strategy to include Facebook ads along with a job board posting. “We can reach them right where they are on their mobile device. It has been a huge success for us,” he says.

Posting ads in different online venues is necessary. The Maschhoffs conducts a return-on-investment analysis on various job board postings. Flint says it is an eye-opening experience because not all job board websites have the same return on investment.

One specific metric is to look at the traffic actually driven to the company’s career web page. “The hardest part is verifying if the money you spent actually generates an application and then generates a successful hire. With newspaper advertising, it is almost impossible to do this,” he says.

What makes good candidates?

To be an ideal team player for Hord, a candidate must exhibit the three characteristics of hungry, humble and smart. Assessing a person’s qualities from an application or resume is not easy.

Davis says Hord’s interview process is two steps for a potential candidate. Anyone making it through the first interview process is invited to participate in a farm tour with a group of managers. “It is more of a two-step process and making sure that first interview lines up with what they are saying when they are on the farm tour to get a feeling if they fit the culture. It really has made a big difference,” she says.

In an organization like The Maschhoffs, Flint is often tasked with finding a candidate who matches the requirements of the hiring manager — typically a farm manager or director of the production. Some are comfortable with hard workers with no pig experience because they are somewhat of a blank slate when it comes to training employees on pig production. Others are the opposite and prefer individuals with a swine production background. Still, looking at a paper resume or performing a short interview may be insufficient to know if a person will be the right fit.

Dependability, honesty and a good work ethic are all things JWV Pork looks for in an employee. Vittetoe says all the jobs on the farm need to be completed, but it is crucial not to discourage someone from growing. If they want to grow in their job, you can’t hold them back. Any person who embraces the idea of personal growth or is a continuous learner is a natural fit for JWV Pork.

Developing talent

As confirmed by the AgCareers.com survey, hog operations of all sizes offer training and development. The program can vary from all technical and compliance development to a mix of leadership and technical training.

Employees are asking for personal development and opportunity to move within the company. Yet, that comes with a price. Often, new employees conquer the training, reach the competency level to handle the task unsupervised, and then want to move on to another division on the farm.

Flint offers the example of a manager hiring a new employee for breeding. The manager trains the employee. The individual reaches the 95% accuracy rate and now wants to move to farrowing. This can be a tough sell because the company may have invested a year to 18 months in getting the employee to be a solid breeder. If the new employee moves on to the next challenge, the manager starts training someone new in breeding. If the employee’s move is not granted, then the employee may feel stifled in terms of development.

“There is the desire to learn the entire farm because you want to eventually one day be a farm manager. The manager is challenged with investing all the time training that person, while the person wants to be cross-trained to learn all the other areas. So how do you do that effectively without production suffering?” Flint asks.

Managers’ leadership and attitudes are significant. “It is always a win-win if we invest in people,” he says. “Your farm will win because we retained a qualified person. Moving someone up internally is always beneficial.”

It is no secret pig people are usually more passionate about working with pigs over people. So, fostering managers’ relationship skills is equally important. “Sometimes, it’s a challenge to get a pig person to be an exceptional people person,” Flint says.

Like other production farms, JWV Pork offers the compliance and technical training on a merit-based system. Employees must pass each level of technical skill sets, which includes English-speaking employees learning Spanish and Spanish-speaking employees learning English. Level passage is necessary before advancement. A written program with clear direction helps manage employees’ expectations.

Even more important are individuals whose job is to train and explain job duties in the language an employee understands. While it is necessary to show someone how to give a vaccination, it is equally important to explain why the vaccine should be given properly.

The company also offers wide educational opportunities, from basic math and language education to neighbor-to-neighbor grower training in leadership development. “Skill sets need to be tuned to the audience. Ultimately, all education is personal and individual. Learning takes place one person at a time,” Vittetoe says.

For Hord, most new employees do not have a farm background, so there is a need to ramp up a team member’s entire experience. Historically, the normal training process was strictly hands-on, but now there is a need for a mix of educating along with doing.

It is also necessary to conduct knowledge checks, assessing how much information the employee is retaining. People learn differently, and it is crucial to adjust the training style to an individual’s needs.

It is essential to provide the technical training, but the company must be equally focused on fully integrating a new employee into the company. Hosting activities from leadership development to recreational activities to community service events makes it more well-rounded work experience.

Each employee at Hord’s has his or her own personal development track. Davis says just writing down personalized plans identifying what is expected of workers and what things need to be worked on helps them grow. Leadership development is offered at different levels, so individuals in the same place for personal development are grouped together, giving them a support network.

Davis advises, “The extra time and energy spent on people is definitely worth it. It does take away from the day-to-day work, but having a written intentional plan for recruiting and developing people pays off.”

All about the family

Things change as new generations enter the workforce. People want to feel part of a family. That is probably the biggest benefit of working on a pig farm. Despite the size, many hog operations like Hord’s are still owned by families with several generations involved in daily activities.

One thing Davis has seen change for the better over the years is managers voluntarily bringing in a team member and their families into their homes to share a meal. The youngest members of the team need a sense of family, and they thrive on it.

Being one big supportive family is a sustainable tradition for The Maschhoffs. It is a culture that welcomes and encourages independent thinking, spurring innovation.

Flint says, “I love it here because it is an organization geared toward motivating people. It is rare for me to go to my manager with an idea and he says, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ He encourages me to think outside the box. I think it is one of the great things when you bring ideas forward and you are encouraged to look at them. It is an organization fueled by ideas. We are committed to innovation. Good ideas come from every segment of the organization. It is one of the best things about the company.”

Flint also says the family-ownership component makes The Maschhoffs an appealing company compared to a business owned by private equity or publicly traded firm. The owners are invested for the future, rather than focused solely on a quarterly report.

On the whole, JWV Pork has a strong family work ethic, but companywide events bring the entire team together in one place.

Often those delivering the feed on the job do not interact with those in the barns. Therefore, these types of events cannot only teach strong safety skills, for example but also build a family bond. “Like all organizations, some days we feel more like family than others. Sometimes families don’t feel very much like families. It is not saying everything is kumbaya here, but what it is trying to say is that people know you care,” Vittetoe says.

Company culture and values

Talented people attract the attention of competing companies. Therefore, keeping employees is valuable to the organization. If the company culture and values align with an individual’s values, then the chances of that person staying are good.

One strategy The Maschhoffs employs is checking in with new hires. They sit down with new employees after one month on the job, asking how things are going, what they want to learn and what division they see themselves working in with the company in the future.

Nevertheless, the key to retaining new hires is getting them past the initial training. There is a period when a new hire is training but not contributing significantly to the operation. If they do not realize their value to the company, then they will leave.

The faster you can effectively get a person from “I am in the way and do not know where to stand” to “I’m confidently moving animals,” the better chance you have to keep them, Flint says.

Employees stay with an operation like The Maschhoffs for the long-term if they feel the leaders have invested in the person individually.

Vittetoe says JWV Pork’s top value is, “As human beings, we respect one another.” It is about team members acknowledging and appreciating each person’s contributions to the big picture. “If we get that one right, all the rest of it falls in place,” she says.

Vittetoe recommends each production farm determine the company culture and values, and live by them. Before its values were set, she could only explain the company broadly to new hires, and now the values are presented on black-and-white signs in multiple languages. It is vital that the values are articulated and, better yet, placed in prominent places such as bathroom walls for all the team to see. “Posting itself is accountability and a good reminder,” Vittetoe says.

In spite of everything, she says the culture and values are also a work in progress. Every day everyone in the organization needs to get up and hold themselves to those values.

“The reality is no one is unaware of how to treat people well. It is just deciding if you want to do it all the days or some of the days to some of the people or all of the people,” Vittetoe says. “It is work in progress to try doing what is the right thing to be fair to the individual and fair to the larger company.”

Employee turnover was an issue at Hord Family Farms. Once the farm focused on a uniformed culture, employees felt like valued family members. Davis says it starts with the top down. Company values can be established, but they must be expressed and absorbed by every employee.

Still, Davis says it is about showing employees you care beyond their technical competencies. Let them know that if they are having personal problems, there are people within the company to go to for help. Someone is here to listen and help them problem-solve. It is also about permitting team leaders to take the time to lend a hand or listen to the problem.

“Work has to happen, but part of that is also caring for them. It is really a different mindset,” she says.

Furthermore, today’s new workers want to be about something bigger. So, if you as the company can make that connection, then everybody wins. At the end of the day, the culture is the reason people stay with Hord, she says. While the culture tree and core values are highly visible throughout the farms, the actions of all employees, from the president down, demonstrate the company genuinely cares.

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