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Positive practices in farm labor management

Published on 07 October 2009
Do you want to improve working conditions on your farm, but aren’t sure what’s most important to employees? Don’t think you can afford to? Don’t know where to start?

The “10 Positive Practices” described in this article will provide you with specific ideas and strategies to:
• Improve employee satisfaction and retention
• Increase productivity while reducing costs
• Improve access to markets seeking products from farms with fair labor practices

This article highlights a broad range of positive labor practices – including many that are no-cost or low-cost – that can help to improve worker satisfaction and retention on your farm. The information is based on case-study research conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), located in Davis, California.



Interviews with farmers, farm managers and employees have demonstrated that positive working conditions for farm employees can, and often do, go hand-in-hand with healthy profits for farm businesses.

Ten positive farm labor management practices
Employees interviewed by CIRS identified the workplace conditions they most value. This list is arranged in those employees’ order of importance.

1. Respectful treatment
2. Fair compensation
3. Year-round employment
4. Traditional benefits
5. Non-traditional benefits
6. Safe and healthy workplace
7. Direct hiring and recruitment
8. Team-based management structures
9. Open communication and decision-making 1
0. Opportunities for professional development and advancement

Respectful treatment
Respectful treatment encompasses a broad range of issues including positive communication styles, direct owner-worker communications, a healthy work environment and decision-making structures that recognize the contribution and value of each employee. Many farm employees cite respectful treatment on par with or higher than wages in terms of importance.

How do I implement this practice?
• Create and enforce policies about how employees are to be treated.
• Provide formal training for supervisors and foremen about respectful communication styles.
• Survey employees to find out what their needs are, both personal and professional.
• Provide employees with a degree of freedom to take care of personal and family needs.
• Check in with employees, inquire about their personal lives, etc. Show that you care about them as people.
• Show regular appreciation for your employees. Celebrate birthdays, successful completion of projects or company goals. Even a simple “thank- you” and personal recognition of a job well done goes a long way.


Fair compensation
Fair compensation rates a close second to respectful treatment in terms of what is most important to farm employees. Farm businesses typically spend 40 to 70 percent of costs on employees and wages. While most farmers would like to be able to offer their employees a wage that provides for the needs of an average family, this is not always possible.

However, when all forms of compensation and benefits are taken into account – profit-sharing, bonuses, health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, housing assistance and food from the farm – the total value of compensation can increase significantly.

How do I implement this practice?
• Ensure that your pay scales incorporate both external equity (how it compares to wages offered on other farms) and internal equity (how employees are paid within the business).
• Offer incentives at least once per year. Some farms provide bonuses on employees’ birthdays or as a reward for staying a certain amount of time.
• Communicate clearly and consistently with employees about how profit-sharing and bonuses are calculated and how the farm is faring financially to avoid adverse impacts on morale and satisfaction.
• Account for cost-of-living increases when making wage adjustments.
• Create consistent pay levels based on skill and responsibility. Reward initiative whenever possible.

Year-round employment
Farm employees identify year-round employment as one of the conditions they most value, after good wages and respectful treatment. In addition to a steady income and job security, year-round work enables employees to maintain a stable family life, with benefits for their children and communities.

A permanent workforce is also good for business. With increasing labor shortages, growers have access to a steady supply of labor. High retention rates keep recruitment and training costs low, while year-round production increases grower revenue.

How do I implement this practice?
• Diversify to allow for year-round production.
• Contract with neighboring farms or other businesses to provide employment for workers when there is little work on your farm.
• Hire field staff to help with maintenance and repairs during the winter.
• Include value-added products that can be made and sold during the winter.


Traditional benefits
Traditional benefits include a broad range of support mechanisms for employees such as health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, life insurance and free or subsidized housing. Farm employees rely on benefits to supplement what they earn by wages. Access to benefits can greatly improve the health and well-being of farm employees and their families.

How do I implement this practice?
• Health care: Provide some form of health insurance to all workers. If costs are prohibitive, provide on-farm access to mobile clinics, health screening and education programs and referrals for local low-cost health care resources.
• Housing: Provide free or subsidized housing for employees. If you can’t provide housing yourself, then help workers locate local housing and negotiate rental agreements, or provide housing stipends as a bonus.
• Paid time off: Offer paid vacation to employees. Offer increasing amounts of paid time off for long-term employees.
• Retirement benefits: Encourage employees to save for retirement by matching contributions (up to 5 percent of wages) made by employees.
• Flexible scheduling: Allow employees to take time off to take care of personal and family needs.
• Overtime pay: Provide overtime after eight hours per day or 48 hours per week.

Non-traditional benefits
Non-traditional benefits include a broad range of innovative strategies to help employees and their families. Due to language barriers, documentation status and economic constraints, farm employees often don’t have access to, or don’t know how to access, many of the public services and institutions that are available in our communities. Employers can help to connect employees with valuable service providers, or at times, provide some of those services themselves.

How do I implement this practice?
• Encourage employees to take home food from the farm on a regular basis. Employees report improved diets for themselves and their families and significant cost savings.
• Provide no-interest personal loans that employees can pay back through payroll deductions or retirement plans.
• Allow social service agencies to conduct outreach on the farm. Pay employees for the time spent attending those sessions.
• Contribute to community projects that support agricultural workers such as childcare centers and health clinics.
• Provide education assistance for work-related courses.
• Offer scholarships to support employees’ children who attend college.
• Provide referrals for social services or legal/immigration assistance.

Safe and healthy workplace
In addition to complying with OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration), growers can institute practices that help protect the health of their employees.

How do I implement this practice?
• Diversify employee tasks throughout the day to prevent chronic musculoskeletal injuries.
• Limit stoop labor to two hours a day.
• Encourage teamwork. For example, ask employees to carry heavy items with co-workers to reduce injuries.
• Make sure supervisors know to provide prompt and adequate medical attention in the case of serious injuries.
• In addition to legally required trainings, reiterate safety messages to employees on a regular basis, or in monthly safety meetings, in order to reduce accidents and workers’ compensation costs. Make sure safety trainings are culturally appropriate, taking into account the diversity of languages and literacy skills among employees.
• Adopt sustainable farming practices such as Integrated Pest Management to reduce worker exposure to pesticides.

Direct hiring and recruitment
By practicing direct hiring and recruitment, producers can have greater control over product quality.

How do I implement this practice?
• Recruit new employees via other farmworkers; this way your employees may be related or from a similar region. Employers report that this results in a more cohesive workforce with less interpersonal conflict.
• Prepare written job descriptions for new positions. Recruitment, hiring and management will go more smoothly if everyone is clear about the duties the employee will be responsible for.
• Invest time into finding the right person for the job to save time and money later. Use a systematic process to determine whom to hire, including interviews, applications, performance tests and reference checks.

Team-based management structures
Many producers have found that a democratic, team-based approach to management and supervision can successfully motivate employees and result in significant cost savings.

How do I implement this practice?
• Instead of foremen, utilize team leaders to help provide guidance and motivation while working alongside other employees.
• Practice the MBWA management style – “management by walking around.”
• Communicate directly with employees on a daily basis. If possible, learn to speak with them in their own language.
• Encourage collaboration between employees, allowing workers to help one another and train new employees.
• Define specific roles for each employee and let them know how their performance will be evaluated. Formal performance appraisals should give employees a chance to evaluate themselves, their successes and areas for improvement.
• Resolve conflicts promptly usinga mediational, rather than authoritarian, approach.

Open communication and decision-making
There are a range of practices that foster good communication between employers and employees. Some, such as safety meetings, employee orientations and employee handbooks, are focused on communicating information and expectations. Others, such as regular meetings and grievance procedures, provide opportunities for worker representation and participation in decision-making processes.

How do I implement this practice?
• Hold regular staff meetings with employees to discuss important topics such as production tasks, personnel conflicts or safety concerns.
• Encourage employee feedback and ideas about workplace practices and production issues.
• Provide formal orientations for new employees about benefits, job expectations and workplace policies. Update all employees regularly about changes to benefits or compensation packages.
• Institute formal grievance procedures, making sure employees know they can freely approach team leaders or higher management with problems.
• Codify workplace policies and practices in written employee handbooks. Make sure they are translated.
• Conduct employee surveys to identify worker concerns and obtain direct feedback about work-related issues.

Opportunities for professional development and advancement
Many employees express appreciation for opportunities to broaden their skills or advance into different positions on the farm. Diversified systems lead to a greater variety of tasks for workers, who enjoy learning about different aspects of the operation. Producers can provide formal and informal opportunities for employees to gain new technical or managerial skills through on-the-job training, formal education or attendance at conferences and workshops.

How do I implement this practice?
• Encourage and reward employee initiative to develop skills and take on new responsibilities.
• Create a transparent system of pay raises that rewards workers for each season they complete (steps) and clearly defined higher levels of responsibility (grades).
• Expose employees to different aspects of the operation.
• Encourage attendance at local trainings and conferences, many of which have Spanish-language tracks.
• Provide supervisory management training to workers who are promoted to supervisory roles. Be sensitive to conflicts of interest that may arise when workers are responsible for managing friends and family members.
• Provide opportunities for employees to gain legal certifications that would enable them to perform more highly skilled tasks such as equipment handling or pesticide safety training.
• Provide opportunities for formal educational advancement at local community colleges. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) handbook