Let’s just call it interesting, at least at the start. The “it” is something that happens in Doug Berry’s farming life every fall at harvest time. The crop is in the field, it’s ready to come off, and Doug is about to see the results of a year’s hard work and careful planning by him, his brother Bruce, son Chad and nephew Kevin.
But the crop isn’t exactly what Doug is talking about.
Harvest means more than yields at Over the Hill and Under the Hill Farms, the 10,000-acre farm near Glenboro, Man. where Doug is company president. Harvest also means their biggest labour management challenge of the year.
With close to 1,500 acres of processing potatoes to dig at the same time that their grain harvest is ramping up, “interesting” might be the wrong word. Even “challenging” might qualify as the understatement of the year.
Maybe the word should be “opportunity.”
Over the Hill’s full-time staff of seven grows exponentially until up to 40 in total are digging, sorting, culling, piling and storing the year’s harvest. Many are longtime members of the harvest crew — some have been working for the Berrys for 15 seasons. Others are entirely green and might never have stepped on a farm before. Others are retired farmers who are looking for something useful to do and a chance to run a tractor again as much as any paycheque.
So how do you take a group of school kids, unemployed city office workers, retired farmers and who knows who else, and merge them in a time shorter than the Stanley Cup playoffs into a cohesive, high-functioning team?
Oh yes, and let’s add the critical point… a team that you’re betting your entire year on?
“It’s actually kind of fun,” Berry says, which makes me admit I’m surprised. “It’s really something to watch a crew pull together,” he says, “and really get going good.”
Start at the top
One of the most important questions is a predictable one for a large operation with a number of members on its management team: “Who’s in charge of what?”
Berry says it means having clearcut chains of responsibility — and one person who’s clearly in charge of each chain. Knowing who to talk to about what takes a lot of stress and guesswork out of the day for employees, and it ensures that resources and workers are deployed efficiently and appropriately.
“When we’re digging potatoes, for example, I’m in charge of the storage, and that’s about all I do,” says Berry. “My nephew Kevin runs the grain operation and my son Chad is in charge of the potato end of things.”
Employees working in these various areas know who to talk to, where to get their daily instructions and where to report problems. Those area leaders can then make a decision, right at that point. Then it’s also up to them to co-ordinate any issues that cross the lines of responsibility — such as needing to shuffle employees or equipment between areas.
Then, at the top of the operation is one single individual who makes the final call. But in the Over the Hill operation, who that person is can vary depending on the day-to-day reality of the operation and what various members of the management team are up to.
A few miles east, near Portage la Prairie, grain farmer Jim Pallister agrees that leadership of the labour force at the farm level is important in many ways. On Pallister’s operation — one of the largest in the province — he relies on a handful of year-round employees as well as seasonal additions to the labour force. Pallister says running a profitable and well-managed farm is foundational to his success. It’s something nobody can afford to lose sight of.
“That’s the bottom line — if we’re not profitable, we can’t afford to do some of the things that will make our employees happy,” Pallister says.
That doesn’t mean squeezing his labour force, however. Instead, it means establishing a mutually respectful understanding of the nature of the business and the reality of the operation.
Indeed, based on hard-won experience, Pallister encourages farmers to gain a clearer understanding of these facts of life themselves by utilizing available IT tools to track how payroll hours vary throughout the season.
“It’s quite straightforward and you can get a really clear picture of what your labour needs are through the season using a graph,” Pallister says. “It really does show a clear picture of your labour requirements.”
For his operation, things are steady at a low level through the winter months. Then into the growing season there are modest peaks during spring seeding and in-crop pest control. Next the real crunch hits, at harvest time.
“It looks like a mountain,” Pallister says of the labour graph for his operation.
That might seem like common sense, but Pallister insists that having a crystal clear understanding throughout the operation of the immovable nature of the business is important.
“You can do things to meet your employees’ needs, but you can’t change the business you’re in, or the fact that it’s seasonal,” he explains.
Sometimes that means denying an employee’s request. For example, let’s say they want every long weekend off. Maybe that works in the summer. During harvest, not so much.
Work has to fit into the needs of the farm rather than the calendar, even when that means the farm is operating on a different schedule than other employers. It works, says Pallister, as long as the rules apply to everyone on the farm, including family members.
To illustrate he tells a story of himself from his younger years.
“I was sitting at a friend’s place one day — I was just a kid — and my dad called, and he asked me ‘Do you want to farm?’” he says. “We weren’t even done seeding yet, and there I was hanging out with my girlfriend and my buddy.”
Pallister says that the one phone call was all it took to smarten him up. “I told him, ‘Of course I do, I’m on my way.’”
Now he says the key to managing employees on a farm is finding good people and motivating them to answer that they want to farm too, even though they’re not the owners of the operation.
Another reality for Berry is the diverse nature of their workforce. Some are extremely knowledgeable about the operation, others are newbies who might not know much about anything. Treating them as interchangeable cogs simply won’t work.
For example, a retired farmer might be chomping at the bit to get back behind the wheel of a tractor and pull that digger down the field. Someone who’s never run a tractor on the other hand might — if they have any sense — balk at taking the controls of a complicated and occasionally finicky piece of equipment that’s the very heart of the harvest operation.
Knowing what the individual wants to do and is suited to do is very important, says Berry.
“I really like to let people do the jobs they want to do, that they like to do,” he says. “There are people who want to work in the shop, for example. There are other people who want to be equipment operators. I myself like it out in the field, not being stuck in the shop. It’s better if they can go where it works for them.”
Part of that process is building a comfort zone for new employees — something that has to happen just about every year, says Berry. “It seems like every year we take on three or four new people,” he says. “It changes every year, though we do have quite a few repeats.”
While new blood can be a good thing, it also means there are a handful of new people who need to be integrated into the crew so that everything can hum right along. A big part of that is making sure they’ve got a good overview of the operation and how the pieces fit together.
“We try to take the new people and move them around a bit in the first week or so and give them a bit of everything,” Berry says.
Berry also councils a bit of patience with new employees, especially in the early days.
“You’ve got to remember that they might not be used to working — physically working, that is — and it can be a hell of a change,” he says.
The farm has also found success, Berry says, by working with employees who have other obligations elsewhere, but still want to work on the crew when they can clear room for it.
“We might have someone, for example, who has a full-time job — but during the potato harvest he makes arrangements so we can have him from, say, 3 p.m. until we quit at night,” he explains.
Because potato growers seek to avoid harvesting during the hottest part of the day — putting hot potatoes into storage is a recipe for disaster — this sort of arrangement can work well for them.
On Jim Pallister’s farm, meanwhile, gaining an understanding of his labour needs again takes a systematic approach, this time using a simple spreadsheet program. On it he lists the farm’s various skill requirements — for example, Class 1 drivers’ licences, mechanical ability, welding, and other basic building blocks of a good farm employee. He then fills in the individual employees and essentially then checks the boxes. At the end he has a clear labour matrix of needs and skills.
“You can look at it and you can see, for example, that you’ve got plenty of people with Class 1 licences, but you may not have enough people who can weld,” Pallister says. “When you’re running a business, you need to have bench strength — you can’t afford not to.”
That means both cultivating the people you have and having a backup plan if things don’t work out, he says. “You’ve got to have numbers to call.”
What an employer wants from the relationship between the business and the employee is fairly straightforward — someone who’s productive, reliable and honest likely tops the list for most.
But plumbing the depths of what motivates employees is an entirely different matter.
Berry says he’s learned that there are likely as many different answers to, “Why do you want to work here?” as there are employees on the payroll.
For some it can be a straightforward financial transaction — they want a few extra dollars for some of the finer things in life, so they take some vacation time from their day job and make it a working vacation.
“I think for some of them it’s their Christmas money, or the money to pay for the kids’ sports — it’s a few dollars for those extras,” he says.
Others might find a few more dollars to be just fine, but that’s not really what keeps them coming back season after season.
“For some, I think it’s a chance to change their life a bit,” Berry says. “They get to work outside, drive equipment and work with a group of people for a common goal.”
That might seem a stretch to some, but to someone whose life usually consists of hunching over a computer in some anonymous cubicle eight hours a day, pushing electrons around on a screen or paper around in files, getting out into a farm field can seem like a vacation they’re being paid to take, especially on something like a harvest crew.
Pallister agrees there can be many different motivations for employees, but in the end, he says, “Incentives count.”
For him that means showing employees that they’ll be rewarded if they show up when they’re needed and work both hard and smart. In some cases it also means rewarding employees with acreage-based bonuses for critical field operations.
“We do that during seeding — the guys get an acreage bonus for every field that comes up and I’m satisfied with — even emergence, no misses, proper seeding depth,” he says. “They also know if they get chemical on someone else’s crop or shrubs or something like that, it’s going to come out of that bonus.”
What he’s attempting to do, Pallister explains, is to delegate both reward and responsibility throughout the organization, pushing it down as far as possible.
Pallister concedes it makes for extra cost. It’s not uncommon for employees to double or even triple their hourly wages during these critical periods, he says. But profitability demands that critical operations must be done right, which works out in everyone’s favour. “If we’re profitable,” Pallister says, “we can share that success.” CG