Working with employees

We knew we needed help this year, but it needed to fit two parameters: anything we do is going to be legal and above-the-table, and it has to be affordable. So we set up the pay-in-produce model, in which we take advantage of IRS rules allowing farms to pay workers in farm products rather than cash, and not having to do the withholding paperwork. For about a month now, we’ve had three weekly time slots in which folks come out to work for four hours at a time, thus earning about $30 worth of farm products. In effect, it’s a working CSA in which their share is paid by labor instead of cash. At the end of the year, we just file the total value paid to the IRS.

We have three blocks of time; two people coming for four hours each, and a married couple coming for two hours together. All these folks have full-time jobs as well, and see this small-time job as a good way to get a form of CSA share along with exercise and a better understanding of the farm.

As this is our first year with employees, it’s been a good learning experience. There is always plenty of work on the farm, but it’s a surprising challenge sometimes putting together a solid block of work that makes sense to do with outsiders. So much of what we do, even basic jobs like weeding, is actually pretty skilled labor that can be hard to quickly teach to someone who’s only here a few hours a week. We take our knowledge of the farm for granted, but trying to explain which little plants are baby carrots and which are grass is not as easy as it sounds, and trying to convey the subtleties and long-term plans behind any given action is difficult.
A lot of what we do is contained and planned within our heads, such that we generally can’t just send someone off to do something. It’s not a question of competence, just of knowledge and context that we have from doing this full-time. But it’s still something we have to pay close attention to, to make sure someone isn’t making an honest but still problematic mistake or doings something not quite the way it’s needed. Sometimes it’s less efficient to have to redo something later than just to do it yourself in the first place.

It’s also a challenge trying to keep the work diverse, so that someone doesn’t get stuck doing the same thing every week. The reality is that basic chores like weeding are a core labor need on an organic farm, and I think everyone understands that. But we also see it as our job to make sure they get a better experience and more learning than just being a weekly weed-monkey. So we try to plan ahead to integrate at least some other jobs or opportunities, as possible.

Then there’s weather. We monitor weather constantly, and plan our daily and even hourly work around the right conditions. We can adapt as needed to what’s coming and happening, and shift chores back and forth. But when you have people coming at set days and times regardless of weather, it really changes the management strategies we have to use. So some jobs get pushed on or off certain days because of the employee schedule, when on our own we might do things differently. Thus one person has done little but weeding and fence work for weeks, because we’ve been in a cycle of rain just around their work time with dry weather opposite, so weeding and fencing are the most sensible jobs, whereas others coming at other parts of the week have been able to do more. And some of the most interesting jobs have to happen when conditions are right; we did a ton of planting and seeding on Sunday that folks would have enjoyed taking part in, but that’s when we had to do it (and our Sunday worker couldn’t make it this week). Oh well.

The payment system has also been interesting. Overall, I think it’s working fine, with people having the right to take good amounts of whatever is available, including fresh milk & eggs. Spring is a lower-production season for us, so everyone is building up some credit toward later-season booms in produce. I think we’re all interested in doing some joint canning days for things like tomatoes and pickles, when their work time will pick up the slack in produce pay. We also want to do a couple cheese-making days so they can learn more about how to use their milk. At times I think they’re reluctant to “take too much”, whereas we’re often concerned they’re not getting enough. Hopefully it all evens out in the end.

As the season progresses, I expect the work get will more and more diverse, and they’ll get tired of harvesting instead of weeding. But hopefully it will become more and more interesting for them to see how the long-term arc of farm management plays out. Certainly I think everyone is willing to be open about what’s working and what isn’t, and we can figure out any mistakes we make in management. Even though we don’t work well for other people, we can still try to be worth working for.
And if we make it through this year without running anyone off, we’ll have a good model for expanding again next year. Certainly, in the meantime, we can definitely tell that we have help. It makes a noticeable difference to look at the task list and the state of things whenever someone leaves, and know that real progress was made.

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