By Michelle McKenzie, Co-Manager of Bellair Farm
Farming for a season is hard work. Leading a crew all the way through a season and knowing you will do it all again next year is even harder work! Keeping your crew’s trust and respect is the best way to get through it all successfully. I’ve been co-managing a farm crew of about 15-20 people for about 5 years on a large scale diversified CSA farm. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve learned a few things along the way, and I’ve tried to share them here.
Pay your people. Begin at the beginning. Adequate compensation is absolutely essential for a healthy workplace environment. Education can and should be offered as a perk, but if you are not paying your people a living wage, you are cheating not only your workers, but also yourself by excluding an entire class of applicants who can’t afford to work for nothing. Sick time, paid time off, educational materials and free or discounted farm products also go a long way to show your good faith. People will be happier and you will be able to ask more of them. If you choose to underpay your employees, remember that you get what you pay for and most importantly, you may be held liable if someone decides to file suit against you.
Create a good crew culture. Go to lengths to explain what kind of farm you’re trying to run and what you’re expecting of people who work there, and then live up to your own description. You are trying to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. Don’t talk negatively about anyone on your crew. Give people a break when they need it, but hold them accountable when they need it, too. Try to be forgiving yet fair. It is a balance, for sure, and not an easy one. If you let too many things slide, the season will get sloppy pretty quickly. If you never cut anyone a break, they will eventually get fed up and leave.
Get to know everyone on your crew. Try to develop an individual relationship with everyone. You might not always get along with everyone or have a lot in common, but to care for your crew as a whole, you need to care for each person individually. These one-on-one discussions are also invaluable opportunities to get a sense for any issues that are simmering and allow you to get ahead of them before things come to a boil.
Focus on people’s strengths, not their weaknesses. Not everyone can be good at everything, and every once in a while, you will hire someone who is not up to standard. When you start to feel this way, try to take a step back and find some positive things about the person. If you write them off immediately, you seal their fate. They will never be more useful to you than you think they are. Try to find tasks that fit their strengths. Someone might be slow and terrible at harvesting but is great at deliveries or doesn’t mind doing your version of a mundane chore. If you can’t find a proper place for them, you’ll be forced to “suffer through” the season with them or fire them, which can sometimes cause resounding waves of bad morale amongst the other crew. Make sure you rule out all possibilities before resorting to that. You might just find that you have hired the right person for the job after all!
Learn what and how to delegate effectively. Everyone has things that they cannot “let go” of, and that it completely fine. But you need to let go of as many things as you can. Being able to do this will allow you to focus your energy on broader-scope issues and open up leadership opportunities for your crew members. As you get to know people’s strengths and interests, hand-pick certain people to be help you keep an eye on certain things or lead the crew while you are gone. You can call it management or not. Of course, you will still end up managing the person who is “managing” the task, but a second set of eyes will help you out and it will be a very empowering experience for your employee.
Be willing to do whatever you ask others to do. Sure, you’ve put in your time already. But if people never see you “working hard,” they will quickly begin to resent you, and you will lose respect and productivity. This doesn’t mean you need work alongside them every second of the day, but putting in some hours doing crew work will be well worth your labor investment.
At the end of the day, only you can know the best approach for you and your farm. Management is not a one-size-fits-all approach. You will need to experiment and make mistakes. I know I’ve made many mistakes and will continue to make more! The important thing is to be striving for betterment. Your crew will notice your efforts and will work alongside you to make the farm better.
Michelle McKenzie began farming shortly after graduating from the College of William and Mary with a liberal arts degree. She has spent 7 years working at Bellair Farm, alongside her mentor, Jamie Barrett, first as an intern and now as a co-manager. She has helped the business grow from 70 CSA members to over 450 families this season. In her free time, Michelle maintains a personal garden with strange vegetables and varieties and loves birdwatching and other outdoor pursuits. She is a member of the 2017-2018 NFU Beginning Farmer Institute cohort.
Like what you’ve read? Check out our Beginning Farmer Forum home page, and join the conversation in the Beginning Farmer Forum Facebook group.