Producers must remain competitive to attract farm workers

SASKATOON — A useful piece of data for gauging the performance of a speaker is counting how many people gather round after a presentation.

In the case of Evan Shout, about nine people formed a semi-circle following his speech. For an agricultural conference in Western Canada, that’s triple the normal number.

Shout spoke at the Farm Forum Event, held early December in Saskatoon. He’s the president and co-founder of Maverick Ag Ltd., a consulting firm focused on insurance and data analytics. He’s also the chief financial officer at Hebert Grain Ventures (HGV), a 22,000-acre grain farm in Fairlight, Sask., south of Moosomin.

Shout’s topic was farm data and how producers can use that data to make more money. But he spent 11 minutes, out of 30, talking about farm employees.

“Why am I talking about this? This is not data,” said Shout, who wore a black jacket and spoke on a black stage with a black curtain.

“Because, as farmers, we have to start creating processes to find labour. And not only to find labour, but to keep it…. Honestly, people are the reason we farm. Our team is the most important part on our farm. It’s also the part we do the most work on, on our farm.”

Shout and Kristjan Hebert, managing partner of Hebert Grain Ventures, are committed to attracting good employees and making sure those workers are happy.

Hebert Grain Ventures now offers a pension plan, they schedule shifts and pay overtime for their approximately 10 employees.

They also hire one full-time employee per 2,000 acres, which equals about 1.25 hours paid per acre.

As well, they set weekly and monthly limits on work hours

“Burnout is the number one issue on farms,” said Shout, who is a chartered professional accountant (CPA) and was a business adviser with MNP.

“(If) we overwork our employees, they leave…. We want to avoid that.”

Basically, they offer conditions and benefits that are standard at most workplaces in Canada.

“All businesses have pension plans and benefit plans. And if we want to start competing with the oil fields and others for labour, we (farmers) need to start offering the things that they offer,” Shout said.

Data shows that farmers are losing out to other industries when it comes to attracting labour. Job vacancy rates in agriculture are 5.4 percent compared to the national average of 2.9 percent, says a report from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC), published in June.

“Farmers across Canada’s agriculture sector reported $2.9 billion in lost sales because of unfilled vacancies — an increase from $1.5 billion in 2014,” CAHRC said. “Forty-six percent of farmers who reported vacancies delayed or cancelled expansion plans (because they lacked workers).”

Hebert Grain Ventures uses other tactics to keep employees happy.

Farm employees answer a detailed survey to assess their skills and interests, such as what type of work they like, what they’re good at and what they’re not good at.

The results can be surprising.

They have a bookkeeper who, they thought, preferred indoor work.

“We assumed she was an office person. Nope. Her number one thing? She wanted to drive a tractor,” Shout said.

“She is now our rock picker and swather operator.”

The process is more complicated than asking someone what they want to do. The over-arching idea is to assess an employee’s interests and strengths and then get the most from those strengths.

The benefit for Hebert Grain Ventures is that workers stick around.

“If you lose a key employee and between hiring/firing, hiring/firing and finding that next guy, it’s about two times the cost of (an annual salary),” Shout said.

Thousands of Canadian farmers are short on labour, but there’s little evidence that they’re changing strategies to attract new employees.

“Right now, farms are still stuck in the cost versus investment. A new employee is a cost. It’s just another cash-flow (going out),” Shout said following his presentation. “We need producers to start looking at an employee as an investment in your business.”

If an employee comes up with an innovation that saves money or time, the investment will pay off.

Or, if the farm owner has time to focus on other tasks, like crop marketing, it could pay off in another way.

Smaller farms, with one full-time employee, can’t have shifts or probably can’t afford a pension plan.

Still, they can take steps to attract and keep employees.

“Whether it is trucks, lodging, any type of benefit you can (offer),” Shout said. “If you want retention and on-boarding (new workers), you need to be better than your neighbours.”

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