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Remember to do your work when hiring farm employees

Updated: Apr 3, 2021

Image of Maryland dairy farm with barns, lots, and silo. Image by Edwin Remsberg.
Image of Maryland dairy farm with barns, lots, and silo. Image by Edwin Remsberg.

This is not a substitute for legal or human resources advice. See here for the site’s reposting policy. Another version of this post appeared in the American Agriculturist Magazine originally.

How to hire farm employees is one topic that I’m often asked to speak on around the country. Although farms might not have deep labor pools at times and are often willing to accept many candidates who apply, not taking time to follow proper hiring procedures can potentially create issues on the farm. Many applicants may not have the necessary experience or have the experience but not the proper training required to do the jobs on your farm. As we move through the year, you may have increased work on the farm and need additional farmworkers. Proper hiring of quality employees will require you to think about the operation’s needs, develop a job description based on those needs, put together an employment form to capture necessary information, ensure that interviewing practices do not violate the law, and then, once a new employee is on the job, ensure that the new employee is adequately trained in the farm’s management practices to limit future mistakes.

Producers often wear many hats on their operations, and one of those hats is head of human resources. With current high unemployment, you may see increased interest in work as summer help around the farm. Before hiring any employee, always consider and assess the employment needs of your farm. What type and quantity of work are you looking for? The needs of the operation and type of operation will clarify your kind and quantity work requirements. Do you need a new employee to drive a tractor? Drive a tractor and work with livestock? Harvest crops? Work in the farm store? Or a combination of these jobs?

Determining the needs of the farm allows you to develop a job description for this position. The job description will include a general description, duties and tasks, working conditions, and compensation. With the job description completed, you can start advertising for the position using standard methods you have found useful in the past.

Possible candidates for the position may start rolling in based on this advertising, although finding qualified farm labor can be difficult. You should have candidates fill out a written application covering, at the least, name, address, past work experience, and references. This application will be valuable in helping you perform a background check on finalists — even if there is only one applicant.

After reviewing the applications and separating qualified and non-qualified applicants, you will need to interview the finalists. This can be done over the phone, or you can ask the finalists to the farm to interview in person. Develop a list of questions to ask the finalist (yes, even if there is only one as well) and decide how to score answers. This will assist you in making sure the process is fair if an unpicked candidate files a lawsuit.

When asking your questions, make sure you keep in mind federal and state legal restrictions on questions you may ask. Refrain from asking questions or making statements related to ethnicity, race, religion, gender, disability, or age. For example, asking if the applicant is a U.S. citizen violates state and federal law. You may, however, legally ask if the applicant is authorized to work in the United States.

After all, this, let’s assume you have a successful candidate and are ready to get them started and on-boarded. As a part of the hiring process, you will need to complete the I-9 process to verify the person is legal to work in the United States. Along with this, make sure you only retain copies of the new employee’s Social Security card, driver’s license, passport, or other documents used to verify U.S. work status if that is your policy. Once you start retaining those documents you must retain them for all employees moving forward and document why the change was made.

As the new employee starts working on the farm, take the time to explain your farm’s practices. What is the terminology used, such as internal names used for farmland and equipment? What are the best management practices used on the farm? What equipment is the employee provided, and what equipment will they be expected to provide for themselves? Take the time to do this at the start, and if the employee does not understand how to do something, take a moment to educate them on the farm’s practices and how to complete the practice properly. Take time to update all employees on new methods and allow them opportunities to attend training in order to stay up to date on the latest practices to be used. Providing this type of training and opportunities for training will help prevent potential issues down the road with claims that your operation was using improper practices.

Hiring employees is not easy for any business, including farms. As we see record unemployment, you will likely experience an influx of interest in employment on your farm. Take the time to find the right employees to prevent hiring an employee who may cause issues down the road.

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