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Business of Farming: Retaining good staff

Whether you have a large farm business or a small family affair, retaining good staff to help drive forward an enterprise should be a top priority. Ben Pike reports.


The impact of losing good members of staff runs deeper than just the financial implications of recruiting a replacement.


Productivity and knowledge disappears while searching for a capable replacement, who then needs to be trained, which can be time-consuming as well as frustrating and expensive.


Small farms are arguably more exposed to risks of high staff turnover, but any business can be guilty of not putting as much time into retaining as they do recruitment.


It is an issue which transcends agriculture as well as the companies serving it, and with a changing philosophy towards pay and conditions, could it be time for businesses to redouble their efforts to keep the brightest and best?

Satisfaction leads to almost 20 years of loyalty

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Mark Turner was a Syngenta Farm Sprayer Operator Of The Year finalist 2016.


Mark Turner is now in his 19th year working for Rise Farms, near Hull, East Yorkshire.


He says job satisfaction is the main reason he has stayed as a farm worker on the estate which grows more than 809 hectares (2,000 acres) of winter barley, winter wheat, oilseed rape, vining peas and spring beans.


He says: “I guess I have been here as long as I have because I am happy and settled in my job, I find it satisfying and take pride in what I do.”


He joined at just 18 years old, but had to wait nearly 10 years to secure the role he wanted, carrying out all heavy land work on-farm.


“I waited but am very happy and satisfied, so it was well worth it. Now I do the spraying and fertiliser applications and most ploughing, subsoiling, min till and power harrowing.”


He admits he has good and bad days at work, like anyone, but there are no major issues which would make him seriously consider moving on.


Mark believes employers who want to retain staff should ‘be fair and respectful and treat others how they would like to be treated’.


He says: “I have definitely learnt a lot over the years and I get annual spraying and N-sensor training.


“I have also done chainsaw training, forklift refreshers, a trailer test, have just recently done my category H test for a crawler and my PA4 for slug pellet applications.


“If you have the right staff, invest in them, but also listen to them. They might have ideas which could improve the job in-hand which cannot be a bad thing.”

Farm business often leave management 'until it is too late'

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Rick Turner is a farmer by trade, but employs up to 100 people.


As well as being an eighth-generation farmer and owner of the farm attraction The Big Sheep, Rick Turner delivers employment and motivation masterclasses to global businesses.


At busy times, the tourism business employs up to 100 staff, which requires significant resources to manage and motivate.


Rick suggests most farm businesses do not spend enough time thinking about staff retention until it is too late.


He says: “Times are changing and the next generation is not prepared to do a hard working and pretty unpleasant job with antisocial hours and low pay, just because they are being paid.”


He advises employers to think about their top 10 per cent of employees and how much they would miss them if they decided to leave a business.


“The question to ask is what would you do to retain someone if they handed in their notice today?


“Would you miss them and would you offer them more money, training and development, and offer to improve your management of them or would you be relieved to see them depart?


“Keep your stars and help the poor performers find something or somewhere they may thrive.”

Rick Turner's seven tips for staff retention

  • Give clear written expectations of what the job entails – this is the number one motivator
  • Give regular feedback on performance – try and ensure you pick six things to praise for every one thing which is wrong
  • Praise in public, but chastise in private
  • Spend time on training and development – personal learning and development will make every hour more effective and is massively motivating
  • Communicate regularly and make notes on goals and progress
  • Treat employees with respect, as if they were a volunteer in the business
  • You want engagement, not just attendance – involve staff in decisions, listening to views and ideas

Andrew Brewer's global view

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Dairy farmer Andrew Brewer on his Nuffield travels in Indonesia.


“There are good and bad employers in every country,” says Cornish dairy farmer Andrew Brewer, who studied staff retention as part of his Nuffield Farming Scholarship.


“Generally, the best employees I came across showed more empathy towards people, putting time and effort into it.


“A lot of farm businesses might understand a cow in great detail, but do they understand people as well?”


Andrew, who milks 750 cows across 405 hectares (1,000 acres) near Newquay, employs two full-time staff and one apprentice.


He believes the whole job market ‘has lost the gold watch mentality’ and with it a great deal of productivity.


In New Zealand, Andrew learnt the average farm worker stayed with a company for just 18 months.


He says: “By the time someone decides to leave, you lose their productivity. Then you have to find a replacement and train them up.


If you are not careful, you can get into a tailspin of lost productivity.”


By contrast, Andrew has a seasonal member of staff who has come back for five consecutive calving periods.


“This means less training for me to do and experienced employees are more productive.”


He also says the importance of understanding how people perceive working in agriculture, adding family members ‘are the most exploited workforce’.


He says: “So many farmers have children who do not want to work on the farm or do not view it as an opportunity.


“Those owners need to look at themselves and ask how they can expect other people to work long hours for so little return if they cannot get their own children to do it.


“Every business will improve if they can improve their employees’ lives.”

New recruits - what matters?

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Harper Adams graduate Hywel Davies started at Rostons this summer.


Hywel Davies spent the third year of his degree in rural enterprise and land management at Cheshire-based rural land and property company Rostons.


His talent was noticed by the firm and, since graduating from Harper Adams University this summer, he is now a full-time employee.


With his family’s roots in agriculture in Denbighshire, North Wales, he says the location of his place of work is as important as his professional development.


He says: “I did a whole range of professional work for farmers during my year out and really enjoyed myself and learning lots. Then they asked me back for an interview earlier this year.


“Rostons wants to continue to grow its existing client base in North Wales, and as a fluent Welsh speaker it is nice to see someone recognise I have a skill which can benefit them. I love being able to work in an area familiar to me.


“They fully appreciate I have something other people do not.”


Hywel has ambitions to become a rural chartered surveyor and agricultural valuer.


“I want to stay local to home and get more clients of my own. For me a good job is about who you are working for and with.


“I wanted to work for a smaller company too, so I could get to know people well and specialise in my own region of Cheshire and North Wales.”

Ask the expert

Phil Sheridan, senior managing director from recruitment specialist Robert Half UK, outlines what employees in any business value the most.


Research has suggested more than 86 per cent of UK chief financial officers and finance directors are very or somewhat concerned about losing top performers to other job opportunities.


While offering a competitive remuneration package is one way to attract employees to stay, it is not the only way to keep employees happy.


Phil says there are multiple ways to attract and retain top performers and the key is to tap into their career goals and desired working environment.


Increasingly, employees are looking for alternative benefits, including better work-life balance and a clearer career path.


  1. Re-recruit top performers

Before your competitors have a chance to poach your best workers, you must re-recruit them yourself. This means selling them on the advantages of working for your company, highlighting what is unique and special about it. It is also a good idea to reiterate how essential they are to the success of the business

  1. Provide well-defined career paths

While you should avoid making pie-in-the-sky promises, you should be able to help staff envision tangible rewards on the horizon, including promotions, salary increases, performance bonuses, company-sponsored training opportunities and profit-sharing where appropriate

  1. Explore flexible work arrangements

A strategy best reserved for top performers, flexible work options can help you retain valued employees who might otherwise be tempted to leave. The key is to tailor the alternative arrangement – flexi-time or compressed hours – to the individual employee. It is also more likely to work if you hold employees accountable for integrating their flexible arrangements in to the overall schedule of the company

  1. Improve and adjust compensation

Money is not everything, but it still holds considerable importance for most employees. Periodically review your salary and benefits structure to ensure you are offering competitive wages and the types of benefits which are most valued by today’s workers

  1. Avoid the counter-offer

Should one of your top performers hand in their resignation, you might be caught off guard and immediately start asking questions and calculating what kind of increase you could offer.

But employees who accept them frequently end up leaving the company in relatively short order. Counter-offers can be harmful to other staff and your ability to effectively manage them.

In today’s job market, ‘goodbye’ does not mean forever. In fact, 36 per cent of UK HR directors have successfully rehired a former permanent employee

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