Employee recruitment, engagement and retention are three important structural pillars in building a strong dairy farm labor force. Strengthening all three creates a culture that benefits both the employer and employees.
Freelance Writer
Bev Berens is a freelance writer in Vestaburg, Michigan.

A panel of farm-based human resource professionals shared their ideas and strategies for effective employee recruitment, engagement and retention during the 2022 Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference, held last February in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Facilitated by Bob Milligan, senior consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC, the panel featured experts from across the agricultural sector. They included:

  • Esther Flores of Green Top Acres (formerly Van Erk Dairy) is a human resource specialist with two decades of experience in international recruiting, hiring, employee management and retention at the Payne, Ohio-based dairy.
  • Bob Thompson is the director of human resources for Peterson Farms, headquartered in Oceana County, Michigan. The 900-employee fruit farm packs fresh and sliced fruits and produces juice and juice concentrates.
  • Martin Carrasquillo-Mangual of Michigan State University Extension focuses his programming on farm employee training and development along with on-farm feed management programs throughout Michigan.

First impressions

In the current environment, where labor supplies are tight and competition for workers is fierce, first impressions resonate. Green Top Acres’ Flores and Peterson Farms’ Thompson strive to respond to new job applications within 24 hours.

“Everyone else is after the same employee,” Thompson said. Putting the best foot forward quickly shows a potential employee the organization is interested and sympathetic to the individual’s need for work.


Recruiting: It’s about connections

Recruiting methods may vary based on the individual farm’s needs.

Thompson said Peterson Farms hosts job fairs in Texas and runs radio ads both in Spanish and English to fill the operation’s peak needs. Word of mouth and offering generous bonuses for employees who bring solid candidates to the organization are also successful strategies.

Social media platforms, including LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, have given Flores positive results. She also makes international recruiting trips, visiting schools and colleges and building relationships with instructors. Once the foundation is laid, the instructors approach her when a new crop of students are seeking work. While on international trips, she checks in on parents and relatives of employees back in Ohio.

Once Flores has established a new employee relationship, she learns about family members, often sending cards or small gifts for special occasions. Family members who feel valued through connection are soon recruiting other workers.

Neither organization overlooks the local community for potential hires. Fliers, visits to homeless shelters and Mexican restaurants can bring eager workers willing to be trained.

Onboarding: More than just learning the job

Once hired, the onboarding process too often amounts to a welcome, a handshake and introduction to a supervisor, according to Carrasquillo-Mangual. However, true onboarding goes beyond orientation, paperwork, job training and cross-training. It also includes engaging individuals in the business culture and core values, helping the person understand and feel comfortable in the job, and providing the tools for excellent job performance. It reaches beyond the job, easing them into the community of co-workers to help them feel at home.

Green Top’s onboarding experience spans six months, Flores said. New employees are guests of honor at a welcoming party where they meet immediate co-workers, employees on other shifts and in different areas of the farm.

Flores said immediate introductions build teams and help Spanish-speaking workers connect and make friendships with others who may also be far from family. Helping workers feel more comfortable and acclimated to the U.S. is important both to onboarding and employee retention. “The first two, three weeks, they are excited – but after a time, they start to get lonely, they start to miss the language and the food,” Flores said.

Employees appreciate a tour of the entire farm, not just their assigned division. It is also an opportunity to point out when and where equipment is moving and potential danger zones. A trip through the community to show them where to buy groceries and supplies or do laundry helps ease anxiety about obtaining the basics in a strange environment.

After six months, Green Top conducts a sit-down discussion with the new employee, Flores, and the farm owner where they create a plan for professional and personal development, and how the farm can help them achieve their goals. Sometimes goals lead an employee back home where they want to start their own breeding service or other dairy related business. “We try to make them know that this isn’t just a job, and they are not just a cog; (the owner) is willing to invest in them personally and with their family,” Flores said.

Retention: Building meaningful culture

All panel members agreed that the crux of a successful overall employee program is building a team culture, based in trust and developed through honest communication and relationships among employees, managers and owners. Valuing the person, not just the worker, is the bottom line in worker retention, they said.

Carrasquillo-Mangual reiterated that importance of first impressions in building culture, showing new employees the employer is invested in making them feel welcomed. The welcome event to meet co-workers should be the same for all employees. When owners and managers attend welcome events, it gives more evidence to new team members that they are valued.

Multiple parts of a well-run retention program can yield long-term results. Partnering a senior employee with a new hire for training and acclimation, combined with health benefits, bonuses for achievement and excellence, and bringing new employees into the organization can help create long-term continuity, Carrasquillo-Mangual said.

Small things build a foundation for bigger things, and both Peterson Farms and Green Top Dairy also look for solutions to bigger issues.

As a large employer, Peterson Farms has gone as far as building a 52-unit subsidized housing facility strictly for employees and offering a transportation shuttle to and from the housing complex for each shift. Those steps are part of a culture that tries to bring workers from a lifestyle of instability to a lifestyle of stability. From Thompson’s perspective, housing, transportation, a community, opportunity, trust and friendships are all important in building the stable environment employees need to grow and maintain more years of seniority.

“Obviously, we do a lot of training, but it is our culture that keeps employees here,” Flores said. To create that culture, vigorous attention is applied to building trust that leads to open communication. “We really try to teach them that they can trust us.”

Green Top Dairy includes the owner in the relationship-building process for all employees in the hierarchy. Employees soon trust an owner who will listen to good suggestions and has an interest in their personal long-term goals, both on and off the farm.

Flores is a strong believer in resolving disputes between workers and managers to reduce staff turnover. She works to assist employees in individual thinking, personal and mental wellness, and is a key link in establishing a work culture with little turnover.

Both farms try to help employees grow into positions that offer more responsibility and compensation as employees seek and desire advancement.

“I like to be the bridge between (employees) and the owner; I need them to trust (the owner) with issues or trust him to help them grow into a bigger role. Once they learn to do that, I know I have an employee [who] will stick with me even if someone offers another dollar. They are going to stay because they finally feel like they are important,” Flores said.