Employees wanted: Hiring that special 1.3% of the population

Posted by Andrew Adams on January 26, 2023

It’s the deep of winter and many of us farmers are finalizing crop plans. We’re also looking at our labour needs on our farm for the season, so I thought I would share thoughts and tips for addressing your labour needs on your farm. 

We’ve yet to enter the age of the Jetsons, though we are getting closer every day. Until the day comes when automation and robots do most physical labour, the human power component of a farm is integral to its success. 

Apple harvesting robot working at night

I’d rather see the human component in agriculture continue and only become better in terms of conditions and wages. Each step we take in the direction of less human connection with land will surely do us harm as a species. 

However, our current economic model of commerce dictates that we must continue to focus on efficiency while lowering expenses to stay competitive in a highly regulated and risky industry. Unfortunately in agriculture, it is often the environment and the labour that bears the brunt of the “lowered expenses and tight margins.”

Migrant farm workers in a Californian strawberry field

This article will cover some of the realities of hiring labour for your farm and some of the considerations you should have when hiring. I’ve also spoken with a couple fellow farmers in BC to share their thoughts and experience with labour needs for their farms on this blog.

But first, for some regulatory information in BC regarding hiring farm workers I recommend visiting the BC Government’s web page on this topic.

Labour: Are the individuals you seek in your region?

With only 1.3 % of the population being involved in agriculture these days, the skills and ability to do farm work is dwindling within the growing population. 

With the rural population exodus trend that is continuing today (which is largely an economic movement), folks in more rural or remote areas are having more of a difficult time finding anyone to work on their farms. 

For some, hiring from abroad is one approach to get the right worker. Programs like the Temporary Foreign Worker Program or (TFW Program) can alleviate some of these challenges for some larger operations that can provide the accommodations. Often, other countries that have a much larger reliance on agriculture for its economy produce more individuals that have the skillsets that are required in a modern agriculture operation that may be lacking in your region. It is certainly something I have pondered over the years for our own personal farm. However, on our farm, the size of our current operation and lack of accommodations has for now put that thought on the back burner while we continue to grow and evolve. 

Define your expectations well

If a candidate doesn’t meet your expectations on experience/skill, can you afford to train them? If not, then it would likely be a better idea to continue your search.

Training someone with a lack of skills or experience can be challenging and each individual has their own style of learning which may or may not match up with your ability to teach and the economics behind it. 

In the same vein, know when to let someone go. Don’t prolong it, as it’s not good for you and it’s not good for them. Employing someone must be a win-win situation, as my wife Janie is always saying. If it’s not a win-win for both parties, don’t keep funding it. It’s like a crop gone to the weeds. Sometimes it’s more economical to plow it under and start again. But like deciding to plow in a crop gone to weeds, it is a really challenging decision with lots of emotional baggage. 

Conversations from the field:

I spoke with Kerry from Laughing Crow Organics about her labour needs and challenges as they enter their 10th year farming on this rainy day in January. Kerry said that they employ about 4-5 people along with herself and Andrew, her business partner. They typically employ from May to the end of October but often have a bit of part time work needs in April. 

Crew harvesting at Laughing Crow Organics

Laughing Crow Organics is 10 acres in mixed vegetables and 5 acres in agritourism. Kerry wanted to be sure to let others know they are a row crop style of farm and are not as dense of plantations as some other farms. This row crop planting style is set up for the use of mechanized equipment to reduce the burden of labour. Their primary markets are two farmers markets, a 230 CSA program and some agritourism. 

“Ideals alone don’t make a good employee”

I asked Kerry what was the biggest challenge she finds when hiring employees. Kerry said that some of the challenges are assessing and interviewing the person online, finding out if they’re capable to do the work and also if their personality matches the work needing to be done.

Kerry also echoed what I’ve heard all across BC and Canada about the reality of labour on farms recently: that there is less interest in agriculture work these days and therefore fewer applicants. 

Laughing Crow Organics crew harvesting

I asked Kerry what things they look for in a candidate. Kerry’s list includes:

  • General labour experience is helpful (tree planting, construction, landscaping)
  • Having experience with their hands. There are many movements a body needs to know
  • Keen to learn
  • Seasonal jobs aren’t high paying so there needs to be an interest in agriculture and small scale agriculture
  • The best candidates know what they want to get out of the experience
  • A really great cover letter (written well) in which they take the time to express interest and what they want from the experience
  • Ideals alone don’t make a good employee. There needs to be a drive to work hard, efficiently. Some people like the dream but aren’t driven to succeed. 

Historically, Laughing Crow Organics haven’t had employees with agriculture experience but they have had the labour experience which is a must.

I asked Kerry if she had ever thought of utilizing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Kerry said that she heard from farms that have workers from TFWP and they love it but Kerry hasn’t considered jumping through the hoops to do so. One other reason is that Laughing Crow Organics doesn’t have the housing for it. They have hired people with work visas before however. She noticed that a lot of foreign applicants have more experience than she does, but the TFWP just doesn’t fit her needs right now. 

Housing has been the biggest stress for employees since they began hiring in 2016. Folks can rough it on the farm if need be but there is no on-farm housing. 

When asked about living wages in the area, Kerry said, that as part of the sea to sky region, the living wage is $24/hour. They mostly hire single folks that don’t have families (the living wage is based on families). Wages are lower to start but then pay a little bit higher than minimum wage. Trades wages start at at $25/hour in the area. They’ve raised their starting wages and try to increase people’s wages after a labour review. They’ve offered some cheap on-farm housing a bit to help as a compensation and recently increased starting their wage to $17-18 per hour which is the median farm worker wage in BC. 

As a business, farmers can’t chase price increases the same as other industries to meet inflation. Wages need to go up and we (collectively) need to do something about it. 

In relation to inflation Kerry noted that when you finance something, you have a plan for how long it will take to be paid back, but with the rate of inflation, it’s not in tune with the structure of prices and paying it back. In a two month period, all of the sudden everything costs way more.

Harvesting crew with tractor at Laughing Crow Organics

When asked if they have ever had to fire someone, Kerry said, “No we have never had to fire someone. That being said, we have once, in retrospect looked back and thought we should have let someone go instead of keeping them on. The postseason retrospect made us think it would have been better for us and the team had we taken action to terminate rather than continue to work with them.” 

Mike Kozlowski from Steel Pony Farm did a presentation with Young Agrarians on hiring which is recorded here. One thing that I heard Mike say that I liked a lot was, “there is no leader in the soil,” meaning every person/organism is just as important as everyone else. I find that very true. Like a truck, it won’t work if the tires are not on it, nor will it work if there is no battery. All parts are equal to the achievement of the goal and all parts must be in sync and working. 

Mike had also said, “If things aren’t working I have to have the courage to say, hey you can’t work here anymore…If I don’t, I have to take responsibility for the issues that keep happening.”

I can personally relate to this on a couple different occasions from not having the courage to say, “it’s not working with you, you need to go,” and because of this, issues I was seeing only became larger and drawn out over a longer time than needed. Also, if it’s not working for the farm/farmer, it’s likely not working out for the worker either. No one wants to continue working at something when they aren’t meeting expectations or having issues over and over.

Steel Pony Farm and crew

I also briefly spoke with Jon Rozinksy of Fierce Love Farm. Jon and his partner Erin, met at the UBC Farm in 2013, where they both completed the UBC Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture.

They started Fierce Love Farm in 2018, after many years of working on certified organic farms around BC, from Cawston to Saanich. Between the two they have over 13 years of experience working in the soil. 

Recently, they moved their operation to Qualicum Beach on 4 acres of sandy coastal soil. They previously ran their operation on 1 acre of leased land in Saanich from 2018-2021. They were certified organic on their previous farm, and are eligible for certification again in late 2024, after their new land undergoes the required 3 year transition.

Since moving to Qualicum Beach, which has a smaller population, Jon noted the challenge in finding skilled labour, a common and real challenge for many lower-density population areas of the province. The TFWP would be a large challenge for Jon currently as there are zoning bylaws and lack of on farm housing poses a real challenge. Jon had mentioned that he and his partner might be able to make use of some student labour from the local high school. 

A healthy bunch of cucumber transplants at Fierce Love Farm

Jon and I spoke about the financial challenges that small farms face, when there is a labour shortage and a housing shortage. We both agreed that when a farm is responsible for investing in housing for its labour force to feed the local population, it’s a tall order and many of us just don’t have the means to do so in such a tight-margined industry. 

Fierce Love Farm workers harvesting red turnips

Jon mentioned that he “thinks that small scale farms get overlooked by governments and society as food security contributors and labour economy, but the amount of food produced and sold or put out into the community by small farms is astounding and as such need to have access to solutions to keep on going both sustainably for longevity of the farmers and their employees physically and financially. Not many people are taking up the torch, and we don’t want people destroying themselves to go broke trying to feed people.”

I hope this little blog helps you with some considerations and tips when hiring for your farm this season. Remember, employees are helping you build your dreams but are also doing so under the pressure of the economic realities of their lives, your farm and your life. It’s complicated but also beautiful having employees on the farm, choose wisely and vet well.

Happy growing season farmers!

Do you need help finding land, or getting a lease contract in place after you find your dream spot?

Perhaps you want to attend one of our knowledge transfer events, maybe a business mentor/help is what you are after?

Reach out to Andrew@youngagrarians.org or visit youngagrarians.org/bc-land-matching-program for more information.

The B.C. Land Matching Program is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Bullitt Foundation, and the Real Estate Foundation of B.C.

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