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Over The Farm Gate

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How one UK dairy farm is successfully hiring and retaining quality staff

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The Alvis family has about 140 staff working across its Somerset cheese business and family farms. Johnny Alvis, who runs the farm side, shares his tips on hiring, motivating and retaining staff.

Left to right: Johnny, John and Peter Alvis.
Left to right: Johnny, John and Peter Alvis.

Finding the right staff and holding on to them is only going to get harder. In the South West particularly, there is little unemployment, so there is opportunity in all sectors for people to get jobs, from farmers to truck drivers and office workers.


You always have to be aware of that and you have to financially or emotionally be better than the next industry and offer slightly more than the next person.


You have got to give them some enjoyment in what they do and give them enthusiasm. You cannot expect people to just want a job.


To keep the good ones, you have to keep them motivated and enthusiastic.


1. Be positive and pleasant

Be approachable; that is really important. No-one likes a miserable sod. I sit down with everyone every morning and have breakfast with them and talk about what needs doing for the day.


I like to think I am an approachable kind of guy and I am open to suggestions. If a milker who does it day-in-day-out wants to change and try another way, I am open to that.

You have to encourage them to want to come to work. It is more than just a pay cheque.


Show some interest in them and what they do outside of work. Paying staff on time and other general courtesies are also really important.


2. Be open about performance on-farm

Tell staff what your milk price is and when it goes up or down. That lets them understand what the industry is doing so they can understand why you are not buying a new tractor, for example.


3. Give staff routine and ownership of something

People need to be given their own responsibility and room to develop different parts of the business. I think people like responsibility, even if it is a small area. It helps motivate them and also helps with the running of the business.


Be open to delegation. If you can give people a bit of responsibility, it takes pressure off the farmer’s plate.


It is important people know exactly what they need to do.


I think routine is better with a bit of spontaneity, rather than spontaneity with a bit of routine. Routine helps morale and productivity.


We sit down at the interview stage and run through what is expected in the job. You do not want to take on anyone under false pretences.


Gauge the reaction at interview stage. You can then tell if they want to milk cows, for example, or if they just want a job. Get it right then and it helps with staff retention.


We have reasonable staff retention. One of our longest members of staff is 66 and he came when he was 17.


The packing hall is more difficult to hire for, as it is more production line work with some shift work. We tend to use an agency for that.

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4. Motivate the team

To keep the good ones, you have to keep them motivated and enthusiastic. Where people show strengths you have to build on them, but you have to give people the opportunity to show their strengths.


I think the days are over when you could expect staff to start milking at 5am and come back at 5pm and finish at 8pm; even with three or four hours off in the middle of the day. You cannot do much in three or four hours, apart from sleep.


I am really keen that everyone is home by 6pm. We only have one person working 5am to 6pm and they only do that twice-a-fortnight. I think it probably helps us keep staff, as they know they are not going to be here all night.


Good facilities are important. There is nothing more demoralising than ‘Oh it’s broken again’. It is about keeping machinery and kit together and functioning.


5. Employ the right people

We are great believers in employing the right people for the right job. I think it is important individual farmers concentrate on what they are good at and pay people to do what they are not good at.


Farmers are not perhaps the best marketing people. They are great at producing things, which is why we have a marketing director.


I am also not an organic person, so Lester Lavington has been managing the organic unit for a number of years.


6. Look outside of the industry

Be open to sourcing staff from outside of the industry. Social media is particularly good if you want to get youngsters involved. As soon as you tap into a couple of Young Farmers Clubs and ping it around, you get a lot of interest.


The last two part-time milkers I employed came through Facebook. One is from a farming background and one is not.


I am not overly worried about experience. If they are enthusiastic, they can learn.


I have had builders, lorry drivers and a retired butcher work for us.


Millie, who does our calves, is doing a stunning job. Up until a year ago, she had never touched a calf. She has some great skills for the job.

Business profile: Lye Cross Farm, Bristol

Business profile: Lye Cross Farm, Bristol
  • Owned by the Alvis family: John Alvis and sons Johnny and Peter
  • Johnny heads up the farming side of the business and Peter the cheese manufacturing
  • 1,740 hectares (4,300 acres)
  • Two dairy farms: one organic, one conventional, totally 1,000 cows
  • One pig B&B business with room for 6,000 fattening pigs
  • Milk from the family’s two farms and 30 other farms in the South West used to make cheese on-site
  • Cheese business processes 45 million litres per year; predominately made into Cheddar
  • Cheese sold to most major supermarkets, delis and shops, with 35% going abroad
  • 125-130 employed full-time in cheese business, including farm shop and cafe
  • 12 full-time staff for farm business plus four regular relief

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