Four panelists, representing some of the dairy industry’s leaders in building employee engagement, offered their perspectives at the recent Operations Managers Conference, presented by Cornell PRO-DAIRY and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association. The session was moderated by Dr. Richard Stup, Cornell
Freelance Writer
Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural a...
agricultural workforcespecialist. Panelists shared how and why to engage employees and build a positive workplace culture.

The bottom line? It’s all about growing a well-rounded team where everyone’s contribution works to move your farm ahead in its mission. Here, in post-panel interviews, the panelists share the best practices for hiring, developing, retaining and promoting the right candidates.

The magic of employee engagement

The basic goal of employee development is “to give a sense of belonging to our team members and create pride in the work,” Byron Ramirez of Ag Pathways said. As a professional recruitment and placement company, Ag Pathways focuses on finding the right candidate, one that “understands your drive, vision and love for what you do. We believe in picking the right person for the right company.”

Ramirez, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala as a young child, approaches the placement process as a two-way street, where the right employees help to ensure a farm’s success, while the farm provides a vibrant, thriving workplace with opportunity for personal and professional development and fulfillment through team engagement.


Jon Huseth, fourth-generation dairyman and owner of Clay View Dairy LLC in Minnesota, founded Ag Pathways as a resource to find employees who understood the dairy’s mission and were eager to grow and evolve along with their employer’s needs. It’s all about purposeful hiring, not settling for whoever shows up seeking a job.

“The contribution and development of each team member is essential to the development of a culture that embraces continuous improvement, high achievement and respect,” Huseth said. “Everyone has a role on the team, and great teams give their players opportunities to contribute.”

Betsey Cunningham, human resource manager at Alliance Dairies in Florida, said the dairy approaches potential workers with the attitude of “we want you to join our family, so you can support yours.” Cunningham described the recruitment process in terms of the stages of dating. The application is the pick-up line; the interview is the first date; the first day on the job is akin to meeting the family; and the first 90 days is the engagement period. If all goes well, a marriage occurs, and a long-term relationship built upon mutual respect ensues.

It begins with identifying the people who share your same values, Cunningham said, and committing to those you hire. Invest in their abilities, utilize their strengths and skills, and recognize their achievements. Fostering communication between administration and employees, and celebrating significant dates, such as hire anniversaries or birthdays, create a vibrant workplace, engaged employees and a culture of teamwork and mutual success.

“Every farm has a culture, whether you realize it or not,” she said.

For Dr. Conrad Spangler of Riverview LLP, a multi-state dairy and beef operation, building that culture “starts with the behaviors and actions of the leaders of the organization. When we decide to bring an employee into our family, we work to on-board them through training and discussions on safety, culture, animal welfare and connecting them to other leaders in our organization,” he stated. They use behavioral-based questions to ensure “we get the right people in the door that have our core values of strong work ethic, integrity, candor, spirit of humility and keep it simple.”

Their “Riverview Academy” offers internal and external training opportunities in safety, technical issues and language skills.

Building leaders

Middle management positions can be challenging. They require an engaged employee who has the proper skills, attitude and inclination to lead and teach others.

“We are always looking for characteristics that show us we have a possible leader in our team. We focus on their actions, desire, social intelligence and pride in their work,” Ramirez said. “We also remember that as much as we pick people, they are also picking us.”

Cunningham recommended starting with current employees who are well-aligned with your mission. Promoting from within as much as possible requires positioning employees to succeed and promotes dedication and loyalty.

Middle managers are “so important because they are responsible for implementing and creating the culture ... and teaching others of the importance of doing things the right way,” Spangler said. Being “hungry, humble and smart,” and able to accept “ownership and accountability for themselves and their areas” are important traits.

Building leaders takes more than a promotion. Leaders need to be trained for their new responsibilities. Not everyone who qualifies is actually leadership material.

“We start by giving them small responsibilities, including leading meetings, supervising the night shift and working on weekly reports,” Spangler added. “If we have made the wrong decision and promoted the person to a position that they are unable to handle, it is important to remove them from those responsibilities quickly to make sure there is not a shift in culture in the wrong way and to put them back in a position where they can be successful long-term.”

“Leading and teaching are very different skill sets,” Huseth said. “When hiring people or looking to promote people into supervisory roles, just because they are the best at what they do, or are the most efficient, doesn’t mean they can lead or teach. A hard-nose, can-do person will most times become very frustrated in a training or leading role.”

Successfully building a culture of employee engagement requires an assessment of each employee’s abilities, temperament and work ethics, which must match not only their position, but the mission of the operation. Engaging employees on this level requires a culture where everyone is primed to succeed and everyone on the team contributes to the mission, agreed the panelists.

“You can no longer build a business off an idea, cash flow and a finance package,” Huseth said. “You need to spend actually more time developing a plan of how you will create, train and foster an organization that will help you to make your business endeavors successful.”  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

PHOTO: A team of employees at Alliance Dairies covering the bunk. Photo provided by Betsey Cunningham.