Skip to content

Ontario Grain Farmer Magazine is the flagship publication of Grain Farmers of Ontario and a source of information for our province’s grain farmers. 

Smart ways to staff up


staff is only for politicians, bureaucrats, and other well-to-do city slickers. Wrong, say ag human resource experts, but they also add that farmers would do well to consider adopting some of their hiring techniques.


Good help may be hard to find, but as they age and operations grow, some farmers have started to look a little harder. Jim Snyder is the National Director of Agricultural Practice Development for BDO Canada LLP. He says it’s becoming more common for farms to reach a point where bringing in outside help on a seasonal, part-time, or full-time basis becomes a logical business decision.

“The human resource component used to be supplied by family,” said Snyder. “Now that farms are larger and families are smaller, this doesn’t work anymore.”

Like so many things in life though, finding and acquiring a good hired man is hard to get right on the first try. Snyder says he meets a lot of farmers who spend hours looking for cheaper fertilizer prices or hunting down obscure replacement parts but would hire the first person to walk through the door ‘who would do’. 

“We’re very good at attending to operational details in agriculture,” said Snyder. “Or, as I like to say, we’re very good at working IN our business but not very good at working ON our business.”

Gary Mawhiney of Ag HR Solutions agrees with Snyder and says he usually has very little trouble helping clients improve their hiring strategy. His secret, he says, is simple: have a written strategy. Mawhiney says ideally a human resources plan is developed in December or January, long before the busy season hits or any hiring process starts. He says establishing a productive and useful team on your farm doesn’t just happen overnight.

“In order to be an effective human resource manager, it takes work,” said Mawhiney.

how to hire well
Mawhiney says that he recommends farmers follow five steps the first time they hire help. First, conduct a needs assessment for the farm. Establish which tasks will demand extra help, what level of skill will be required to complete the task successfully, and approximately how much time these tasks will require. Mawhiney says to remember that a new employee won’t necessarily be able to do the job as well as you do or as fast as you can. Once you’ve established your needs, you are ready to write a job description. Even if you don’t plan to advertise the job in writing, Mawhiney always recommends writing out a description. Eric Spell, the President of, says farmers who do want to advertise should strive to create a concise job ad that can be posted in a timely manner.

“Ideally a farmer should start advertising 60 to 90 days before they would expect the employee to start,” said Spell. “Otherwise they end up scrambling and hiring the wrong candidate.”

Spell says that farmers should cast a wide net when they advertise because there are a lot of talented people looking to work in agriculture right now, here and in the United States. As a guideline, he suggests that farmers target their ads to anyone within a three hour radius at least and use a combination of print and web-based mediums, especially if they’re looking for more than one person. When the resumes start coming in, Mawhiney says it’s time to prepare for the interview and he highly recommends developing a job test.

“Job tests prove applicants have the skills they’ll need to handle minor problems,” said Mawhiney. “There are various tests you can create, for any operation.”

For example, Mawhiney says a grain farmer may ask applicants to back a wagon into the barn if their resume lists experience driving a tractor and the job will require some fieldwork. If the farmer wants to be sure the applicant is mechanically inclined, he can loosen the battery cable beforehand and ask the applicant to solve the problem when the tractor won’t start. If you’ve prepared the applicant before to expect more than a 15 minute conversation, you will be able to work through a few simple tests but Mawhiney cautions farmers not to get too complicated.

“Don’t ask them to put an entire engine together,” said Mawhiney. “You just want to be confident they can handle small problems they might face during daily work.”

Finally, Mawhiney says employers should always check the applicant’s list of references before offering the job. If you’re satisfied with the feedback you get from the applicant’s previous employers then it’s time to hire. Be sure to put the final offer in writing says Mawhiney. It should include the compensation you are offering, including any extra benefits, and should cover housekeeping items such as working hours, breaks, and attire. Mawhiney says this is a good way to head off any misunderstandings about job expectations once work starts since many new employees have trouble asking questions.
“Most people by nature are reluctant to ask questions,” said Mawhiney, “especially if they think they could be construed as stupid.”

what hiring help costs
Mawhiney says that farmers have to realize what they’re competing with when it comes to recruiting employees and that it isn’t just open factory jobs.

“One of the problems in hiring in agriculture is the public image, which is long hours, hard work, and little pay,” said Mawhiney. “But the solution isn’t offering $30/hr necessarily.”

Mawhiney says that farmers have ample opportunity to get creative when it comes to compensating their employees. Find ways to offer employees ownership he says, not of the farm but of their work. If the farm stands to gain increased profit from an employee’s action such as attending a farmer’s market, then offer the employee a percentage of the profit as an incentive for work well done. Spell agrees, and adds farmers should do their research and use other listings or benchmark reports to avoid being caught off guard by salary expectations.

“Demand for quality talent is high right now and wages are higher than what we’ve seen before,” said Spell. “Don’t be surprised at what you might be asked for.”

Spell says it’s important to get creative and take stock of everything you might have to offer. He says a student looking for international work experience may accept lower wages, for example, if you offer them your spare room. Mawhiney adds that farmers who can keep up the practice of finding creative rewards for good employees, in his experience, earn a reputation as a great employer and find good help easily in the future.

“Everyone knows who the ‘good guy to work for’ is,” said Mawhiney. “You want to become an employer of choice.” •


In this issue: