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Michigan panelists share tips for managing HR on the farm

Melissa Hart for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 April 2016
Managing the farm

Dairy farm management reaches across several areas on the farm, leaving dairy producers to manage not only cows, crops and markets but also quite possibly the greatest asset on the farm: people.

At the recent Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, human resource management was a valued topic as dairy producers filled the educational seminar on making the most of the human resource assets on the farm.

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With more than 80 years of combined agricultural human resources leadership, the team from Agri-Placement Services Inc. (APS), in addition to a panel of two dairy producers, led the discussion on overcoming labor challenges on the dairy farm.

APS is an agricultural employee staffing company and human resources consulting firm specializing in agricultural labor law compliance for dairy farms and other agribusinesses. They service clients from the Northeast to the mid-Atlantic states to the Midwest.

Brandon Mallory, president of APS, provides agricultural human resources consulting and labor law compliance services. He commented, “Most dairy farmers don’t have an HR division, so we provide that for dairies.”

Getting the most out of employees and helping them develop to their fullest potential is paramount to successfully leading a team of employees on any dairy.

APS promotes effective personnel leadership, and the best practices on the better-managed farms include meeting the legitimate needs of each of their employee teams. APS believes it’s all about people with character who serve others.

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“Everything rises and falls on leadership on the farm,” Mallory said. He highlighted their working definition of servant leadership as one who identifies and meets the legitimate needs, as opposed to wants, of others and has developed the skills to influence people to enthusiastically contribute their hearts, minds and other resources toward the goals identified as being for the common good with character that inspires confidence.

“We are not talking about management,” Mallory continued. “Management is budgeting, scheduling, strategies, processes, looking at the numbers and how well they are doing. We are talking about leadership."

"We are talking about who you are. You are influencing people to be all they can be. And there are three components to leadership in my opinion, and they center on skills, influence and character.”

Completing the APS team was Ivan Jaramillow, vice president and bilingual human resources leader, and Eduardo Rodriguez, a bilingual human resources leader. They both continued to hammer home that successful business is about relationships between farm leaders and their employee team throughout the session.

The dairy producer panel fleshed out these principles of leadership through the roundtable discussion. John Mueller of Willow Bend Farm of Clifton Springs, New York, and Tom Oesch Jr. of Swiss Lane Dairy in Alto, Michigan, discussed their approach to employee relationships and leadership on their respective farms.

Willow Bend Farm is the combination of two farms, Willow Bend and Spring Hope Dairy; when combined, they milk more than 3,000 cows, raise 2,400 heifers and grow 5,800 acres of crops with a staff of 55 employees.

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Swiss Lane Dairy is a family-owned farm established in 1915 with 20 cows and 91 acres that has grown in 2016 to include 2,400 cows, 4,800 acres and robotic milkers with 40 full-time and 13 part-time employees.

Willow Bend believes communication is key to making a partnership work. They have team meetings with clear job expectations but also enjoy social time and acknowledge the achievements of their employees.

Their mission statement is to strive for excellence in producing large quantities of high-quality milk and be among the best in the care of their animals, their land and their people.

The Oesch family believes in empowering employees with training, communication, goal setting, personal development and evaluations. They have created a culture where employees feel they are part of a team through events, recognition and team branding.

The core values of their business are: God-honoring conduct, focus on the cows, light years ahead, turning a nickel into a dime and making hay while the sun shines.

Mueller reinforced that relationships are key, and the Golden Rule applies 100 percent of the time.

“I have to treat my employees the way I want to be treated,” Mueller said. “You have to be positive. Some days it’s cold, some days it’s hot, but you have to be in there with your team.”

Mueller went on about wages, “You can’t pay too little because they won’t be able to live the way they want, and they will be down the road to the neighbors – and that hurts your relationship and your reputation.” He posed the question, “Do you want to be a place where people want to come or are you the place where people stop by because they are desperate for a job?”

On the topic of using leadership tools, Oesch said leadership is something you never stop learning, and he uses the gospel of Jesus Christ as his guide. He explained, “The principles in the gospels of Jesus are pretty powerful leadership material, and that’s probably the most applicable in our business.”

Evaluations are important to the success of the business, and both Mueller and Oesch perform yearly evaluations where they can listen to employees with communication flowing both ways.

“The employees always have a lot to say, and those that have been working with us a while look forward to their yearly evaluation,” Mueller said.

“It gives employees a chance for them to get to know me a little better and for me to get to know them a little better,” Oesch said. He went on to say in a recent evaluation process, he communicated with each employee about the importance of the business’s core values. He explained that each decision they make on the farm has to reflect these values.

Oesch explained, “There are six owners in our business, and we can do all kinds of things that reflect our core values, but the light that shines in our business is the brightest with the 30 other people that work with us.” He asked, “So if they don’t know what our core values are and what they stand for and where they came from, then how do we expect our business to reflect those things?”

Conflict resolution on Swiss Lane Farm is handled much like it is in the Bible. The solution is sought first between two people, and if that doesn’t work, then the individuals with the conflict meet with a committee of people.

Oesch commented, “Sometimes people just need to talk about a problem or vent, and a little problem can be solved.” He added, “I’m not sure we have the perfect sweet sauce for this, but approaching conflict directly is the best approach for us.”

The process of conflict resolution at Willow Bend includes identifying the conflict, coming up with a plan of resolution, followed up by a pep talk and moving forward.

Goals are very important at both Willow Bend and Swiss Lane with yearly goals set and expectations of achieving those goals. In addition, both farms stressed the importance of caring for people, smiling even when you don’t feel like it and realizing a man’s name is the sweetest sound in any language.

With labor law compliance, Mallory said the best protection against immigration entanglements is still the I-9 form. Errors consisting of missing information, incorrect dates and other technical errors are commonly found during audits, costing some farms up to $1,100 for each violation.

While I-9 audits aren’t happening as frequently as they were in the past, Mallory concluded, “I-9 compliance programs should be in place on your farm; they should be up to date and should be followed.”  PD

Melissa Hart is a freelance writer in North Adams, Michigan.

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