Making a good hiring decision helps farm owners/managers and farm workers build an efficient, productive and happy team. David Hambleton has been the farm manager of Sisters Hill Farm in Stanfordville, NY for 16 years. He shared his experience with hiring, training and managing over 30 Apprentices in a workshop at the 2015 Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) Winter Conference.
According to Hambleton, interviews are just a small part of the hiring process. Farmers must begin a search by posting openings where their ideal candidates will see the listings. He maintains a complete farm website and uses social media to tell the farm’s story. Colorful photos show happy apprentices, staff and volunteers. The Sisters Hill Farm website describes Hambleton’s apprenticeship program in detail including pay, work schedules, benefits, policies and responsibilities. Testimonials tell success stories of past apprentices who now manage their own farms.
Hambleton accepts applications via email only and screens them carefully. He suggests finding hard-working people by reading between the lines on job applications or resumes. Hambleton said some of his best workers had no farm or gardening experience but had experience working in food service for years.
Applicants will “self-select” if they have good information, according to Hambleton. Effective worker-manager communications start with setting clear expectations. Hambleton sends viable candidates his detailed Apprentice Handbook, which lists regular greenhouse and field tasks as well as extra tasks, like covering crops before frost. Also listed are farm policies on time off, sick days and overnight visitors at the apprentice’s on-farm apartment. Hambleton’s team-building activities include picnics with all the members, his family and the farm staff.
Hambleton conducts a 30-minute phone interview with the most promising candidates. Over the years, Hambleton developed a list of open-ended questions that he asks every candidate. He always asks about their greatest weakness and biggest mistake, looking for ways they have addressed these challenges. Hambleton is casual about the order he asks those questions, “Listen to your gut,” he says. When he overrode his gut feeling for the perfect-sounding candidate, he regretted it.
Finalists receive an on-farm interview. Hambleton watches their body language. Do candidates maintain eye contact, sit up straight or lean forward. Are they nervous, arrogant or relaxed? Can candidates keep up on a field walk? Hambleton tries to help candidates relax whenever possible. Since Sisters Hill Farm offers housing, Hambleton asks candidates how they live with others. Do they keep their room tidy, let the dishes sit in the sink or snore? Farm workers need to be efficient and maintain quality standards.
Hambleton acknowledges that interviewing and managing others can be intimidating at first. He advocated, “Fake it till you make it” as recommended by Amy Cuddy in a Ted Talk called “Your body language shapes who you are.” Hambleton recommends the “Wonder Woman” pose for a few minutes before interviews or other stressful moments. Standing tall with shoulders back, hands on hips and deep breathing helps calm and center him.
References provide a final check for Hambleton. His standard questions include:
- How long and in what capacity have you known the candidate
- How would you describe the candidate
- What are the candidate’s greatest strengths and weaknesses
- Did the candidate get along well with others
- Was the candidate kind/empathetic
- Was the candidate attentive to details
- How well do you think the candidate will handle long hours of monotonous physical labor
- Other specific questions focused around concerns raised by interviews
Hambleton found his best workers have been female college graduates. Most have been closer to age 30 than 20. In his experience, these employees nurture and support each other during challenges. They are simply hard workers who apply themselves and do not overestimate their abilities.
Hambleton’s male apprentices have been less consistent. He said the male apprentices who did not work out were overconfident in their abilities and did not have a strong work ethic. Hambleton recommends reading “The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School and What Parents and Educators Must Do” by Peg Tyre.
Candidates interview farmers too and not everyone offered a position at Sisters Hill Farm accepts. Hambleton said most of his farm’s apprentices have been fabulous, regardless of gender.