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"I want the family farm - the backbone of our country's heritage - to thrive and survive for future generations."

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Key to Success is Good Employee Hiring & Training

By Jane Eckert

In order to have success at your marketing, it is important to make sure that the people you hire for your farm market are capable of delivering the type of service you desire and that your customers have come to expect. Earlier this year I conducted a survey to learn more about the practices that successful farms use to hire and train their employees. Here are some of the responses and feedback that I received from many of the most respected farm market and agritourism operators in North America.

Where to Find New Employees
According to the survey results, certainly the most effective method to find new employees was to ask your current employees for referrals. Several farms actually provide incentives to the current employee if one of their friends is hired. Other common methods used to find employees included posting the job openings on the farm’s website, posting them on your Facebook page or other social media, list them on Craigslist, or place posters on the farm.  While some farms still use traditional advertisements in their local newspapers, many farms reported they were going to discontinue this practice because it just wasn’t working anymore for them.

Other methods used to advertise job openings included:

  • Mailing flyers to local high schools
  •  Press releases to the media
  • Posts on college sites for interns
  • Phone calls to high school teachers and coaches for referrals
  • Posters at a local gas station
  • Soliciting the teachers who bring their school classes and
  • Display openings on their roadside signs

Conducting Employee Interviews
For many of us, conducting the actual interview is a time consuming and uncomfortable process.  What kind of questions do we ask?  What kind of responses should we be looking to hear?  How do we know that this teenager really wants to have a job (instead of his parents pushing him to get out and work)?

The interview process is a critical step and an important one.  Therefore, it’s time you became better versed in the process, and take the right steps to make your interviews more effective.

There is no one right way to conduct the interviews but here are some suggestions from fellow farm marketers.  Most farms indicate that they prepare a list of possible questions in advance that they might ask during the interview process.  It’s best to avoid simple “yes or no” question and ask open-ended questions that give the candidates latitude to express themselves.  These questions typically begin with why, what, how etc?  Examples: Why do you want to work here? Why do you believe this would be a good place to work? What type of tasks did you perform in your previous job? What are some things that you could do to satisfy a customer? There are times we when aren’t in the market with you--how do you feel about responding to customer questions when we aren’t immediately available?  How would you handle a customer that was disappointed in our selection of pies?  What would your friends say if you started working here?

Another suggestion coming from the survey was to have the interviewee talk with one or two employees as well as a family member. In this way, you have multiple people evaluating the person and asking questions off the same list, as well as asking questions of their own.  Having another set of ears to hear and process the responses may be well worth the additional investment of staff time—this employee will hopefully be working with you in the future, and you want to make the best choices.

Follow up questions are very important too.  For example, if the prospect indicates that she really likes to keep busy, you might ask what she would do in those times when there are no customers in the market.  I really like to hear from people who know how to find things that need to be done, and we all know there are always things to be done.

Hosting a Job Fair on the Farm
Our biggest challenge is often when people come to complete an application and there is no one available to interview them. Then the applications build up in a stack and we get to them as we can, or perhaps never do. Several farms have gotten around this situation by hosting a “job fair” at the farm to encourage all applicants to come at the same time, and to be screened as a group as well as individually. A “job fair” is hosted on a specific date(s) and time and you and your staff have dedicated this time fully to the interview process. Depending on how many people arrive, you can separate them into smaller groups to ask questions, listen to their responses and to see how they interact with others.

I’m actually partial to the “job fair” approach because I’ve seen how effectively it can be in terms of maximizing your time and those of your employees. Often your employees might be the first to start the group interview process.  Following an initial interview, the employees immediately compare candidates, evaluating how the applicants present themselves as well as their verbal and written responses. Once potential interviewees pass the first round of the interview, then they go to another person and then the top candidates are seen by the owner. 

By allowing your key employees to participate in the interview process, you have now gotten a buy in from them on the top candidates.  Cedar Rock Farm shared with me that they felt that both their number and quality of applicants were improved by this more formal process. In addition, they felt that a “job fair” added to their credibility as a prospective employer.  Most important, they said, was that by using this method, they hired the best staff ever and plan to repeat the process this year.

No matter what methods you use to get prospective employees to walk in the door for an application, remember that the interview process is critical in identifying the best potential employees for your farm.  No matter how much additional training and guidance you provide as the next step, the first and perhaps most important step is to find the best people available as your future co-workers. They will be greeting your guests in a personal experience that will grow your business, or turn people away!

Next month I am going to give you more information related to employee training and incentive methods to maximize the value of each employee that works for you.  Until then, summer is here—and here we go!

Jane Eckert is the founder of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a full-service marketing and public relations firm that helps farmers to sell directly to consumers, diversify operations and become tourist destinations. She is also CEO of www.RuralBounty.com, a search directory for agritourism farms and ranches in North America. Jane can be reached at 314-862-6288 or you may email her directly.