Staffing Your Farm: Successful Management fo Farm Interns and Employees – March 20, 2015

Cedar River Watershed Education Center, North Bend, WA
March 20, 2015

Over the course of a day, 15 farmers learned about successful management of both farm interns and farm employees. Five knowledgeable presenters shared tips, ideas, and resources for farmers that both currently employ interns and workers, or are exploring new ways to staff their farm. These presenters were Arwen Norman (Sky Root Farm), Tisa Soeteber (Washington State Labor and Industries), Tim Terpstra (Ralph’s Greenhouse), Doug Collins (WSU Small Farms Team), and Laura Lewis (WSU Jefferson County Extension).

Arwen Norman kicked off the day with a thoughtful presentation regarding on-farm education and internship programs. She started her farming career as an intern and subsequently had three different internship experiences. Currently a farmer at Sky Root Farm, Arwen expressed how the internship experiences were invaluable to her own education and had given her a general perspective on structuring internship opportunities. Her tips included adding formality to the process of hiring interns, having a clear balance between labor and providing education, setting goals for the interns, and giving consistent feedback based on those set goals. Since the farming season is so dynamic, Arwen suggested setting up structures for managing interns and their time well in advance of the growing season. This lessens the risk of interns having a poor experience and/or costing the farmer in terms of time or money (for instance, if they weeded up an entire bed of lettuce because the farmer didn’t set aside time to show them how to properly weed).

Four questions that Arwen left everyone in attendance to ponder when considering hiring interns were quite poignant: 1. Why do you want interns? 2. What do you expect from your interns? 3. How flexible are you in how your interns will learn (e.g. learn by making mistakes vs. being taught up front)?
4. Does your internship structure reflect your values and goals? Arwen explained that there is no one right way to run an internship program, but if a farmer is honest about answering those types of questions for themselves, they are on the right track to success.

The second presentation of the day came from Tisa Soeteber, Agricultural Employment Standards Specialist, from the Department of Labor and Industries. Tisa went over the employment standards needed for hiring interns, employees, and contractors such as wage requirements, deductions, recordkeeping, and the small farm internship project. The presentation was certainly enlightening to the requirements of L&I. Tisa was very interested in making sure all farmers understand the processes involved with agriculture employment and that the department is there to answer any and all questions. Her main concern is that farmers are in compliance with their hiring and management practices.

To begin the afternoon, Tim Terpstra, farm manager of Ralph’s Greenhouse, gave a presentation on Ralph’s hiring practices and employee management. Ralph’s Greenhouse has anywhere between 55-110 employees over the course of a year, and this season, Tim expects they’ll be at around 75 employees during the growing season. He went through the process that he and owner, Ray deVries, uses when hiring and managing farm labor. For Ralph’s Greenhouse, respect is the basis for all their hiring practices. Tim explained that the interview process looks for aspects of a person that you can’t teach. These things are character traits such as trustworthiness, honesty, and reliability. A question that Ray will ask when hiring is “if you could do anything you want, what would it be?” A person’s answer to this question often uncovers values and skills that will be useful to the farm operation in some way. Another trait you can’t teach is work ethic, and all new hires at Ralph’s Greenhouse receive a three day trial period for Tim and Ray to judge their character. It also gives the new hire an opportunity to quit the job if they feel it’s not a good fit without much consequence to the operation as a whole.

Tim gave four general guidelines that he and Ray use when hiring and managing employees. First, it is necessary to set employees up for success by plugging people into jobs or tasks that fit their strengths. Second, is being willing to let people make mistakes, because that is the best sort of on the job training. Mistakes have limits of course, but it’s the best way that they have found to truly train people. With that, he also gave the tip that teaching new skills is often easier than correcting old habits. Third, is the need to instill self-confidence in people so that they feel proud of their work and feel capable to tackle new tasks. To further aid the success of employees, Tim said it’s good to give people specific jobs that they feel some level of ownership towards. Fourth, Tim suggested preventing employees from becoming too territorial about their work, as it can cause problems within large crews. Further, it allows for flexibility within the crew. Tim shared that being an employer can often feel like being a social worker. That being said, Tim explained that the reward to being available to one’s employees is their loyalty to the farm and to the work.

Further apart of the work structure at Ralph’s Greenhouse are morning meetings. Each meeting starts with employees washing their hands and doing a few quick stretching exercises. Tim explained that the topics they cover often include the plan for the day including special projects, the weather forecast, the current state of the farm’s economics (helping employees connect their labor into the overall costs of the farm), any food safety reminders, and any pertinent current events with agricultural policies. The meeting also leaves time for employees to voice questions and concerns before they start the day. Tim noted that the first four hours of the day are usually the most productive. He explained their break policy and structure, and also explained that it’s advisable to cap the work day at 10 hours. After that, efficiency and overall morale tends to decrease, making the extra hours not really worth it to the operation.

The last presentations of the afternoon were given by Laura Lewis, (Jefferson County Director – WSU Extension), and Doug Collins, (WSU Small Farms Program). Laura presented about the FIELD (Farm Innovation, Education & Leadership Development) Program offered in Jefferson County. This multidisciplinary education program combines formal instruction on sustainable agriculture paired with field-based internships on farms within the county. This program allows individuals to receive both hands-on experience and formalized study. Laura explained that the program involved units of study including integrated farm production systems, soils and nutrition, crop production, livestock production, adding value in farm production systems, marketing and business planning, food systems, and farm infrastructure systems. Generally, all participants in the program follow the same weekly schedule which includes two days off a week, formal instruction at least once a week, and hands-on learning with the host farm on the remaining days. The program can be tailored to the needs of an individual, with the additional opportunity to earn CEUs (Continuing Education Units), or academic credit. The FIELD Program is advantageous for farms that would like to host farm interns but need the extra structure to make the experience educational. To some extent, the farm mentors act as an educational cooperative as interns across all the farm hosts will come together for workshop intensives presented by WSU or other host farms.

A similar educational opportunity to the FIELD Program is Washington State University’s Cultivating Success, a statewide program with set curriculum and a network of farm mentors. Doug explained that this program also offers the opportunity for CEUs through its various classes held at extension centers and approved on-farm internships with Cultivating Success mentor farms. In both the FIELD and Cultivating Success programs, farms are required to apply to be mentors, ensuring that participants in the programs receive a good on-farm experience. In the coming years, Doug shared that Cultivating Success will be looking to expand its online class offerings and resources for both farm interns and mentor farms.

This workshop summary written by Angela Anegon, Education Coordinator.

This workshop supported in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit