Being a good farm boss
by Sanne Kure-Jensen
When successful farm businesses grow beyond what farmers can do themselves, it is time to bring in outside labor. Making a good hiring decision helps a farm owner/manager and farm workers build an efficient, productive and happy team.
David Hambleton shared his experience with hiring, training and managing some 30 apprentices during his16 years as the manager of Sisters Hill Farm in Stanfordville, NY.
“The ability of a farm manager to lead is the foundation of the farm,” according to Hambleton. He and Sister’s Hill Farm have been successfully creating an environment where farm workers thrive. The staff shares a passion for the farm’s mission. Hambleton says a paycheck doesn’t motivate people for very long and disciplining people for poor behavior doesn’t lead to success either. His best results came from building a cohesive farm team that works well together. — a happy, motivated and innovative team that is highly productive, leading to a happy farm boss and true farm business sustainability.
Hambleton’s long-term farm goals guide his annual, weekly and daily farm plans.
One of Hambleton’s goals is to “be a good teacher, be present, aware and explicit.” He mentors new farmers, teaching them everything they need to know in a season to manage their own farm. He also checks in privately with farm apprentices for progress assessments at three, five and seven months
Second-year apprentices set new goals, develop crop plans, have more autonomy and take on different responsibilities. Sister’s Hill Farm apprentices try just about everything on the farm, including driving a tractor, Hambleton explained that this builds trust and stronger relationships.
Hambleton sets expectations and encourages questions from new apprentices. As farm manager, he models new tasks by example and then apprentices try those tasks themselves. To ensure apprentices learn the most efficient techniques, he carefully models the task and then checks in after 5 minutes and again after about 30 minutes.
Good farm systems are highly productive and relatively easy to master. Hambleton plans each day’s task for variety; lessons offer personal growth and professional development — high job satisfaction leads to happy engaged workers who feel productive.
Hambleton spends one hour a week walking every field with his farm staff. They develop a weeding and harvesting plan together. This helps teach the importance of setting farm priorities. By the end of summer, each member of the farm team will be in charge of setting and implementing the farm plan for a week. After their week in charge, farm staff and apprentices evaluate themselves on:
- Creating a good “game plan” and sticking to the plan
• Encouraging a speedy crew
• Explaining and assigning tasks
• Having tools and materials ready for short transitions between tasks
• Reading crew mood and maintaining high crew morale
• Balancing being the task-master and peer
• Amount accomplished
Effective communications start with setting clear expectations. Hambleton does not try to be a peer, but a fun boss. His Apprentice Handbook lists greenhouse and watering responsibilities and farm policies on time off, sick days and overnight visitors. Morning meetings should be comfortable interactions. The team sets greenhouse and field plans for the day and include a bad weather plan.
Hambleton is a stickler for mutual respect. All farm staff must arrive on time ready to work. In return, Hambleton makes sure they finish their day on time. He makes sure no one has to stand around between tasks. The team takes turns setting up or bringing tools the team’s next task. Everyone enjoys good conversations all day. He’s also a cheerleader, ending many days with “Thanks for a great day.” Hambleton said praise must be authentic, timely and about something that matters. People know when praise is phony.
Hambleton urged all farm managers to develop a healthy work-life balance. He works 45 hours per week and spends the rest of his time with his young family. The Hambleton family enjoys a week of vacation away from the farm in late August each year