It’s midsummer, and the temperatures are creeping into the triple digits here in northern Arizona. We are in a major drought, and even though we are accustomed to irrigating all of our crops, the land, the plants, and people are still feeling quite parched.

This is the time of year when the farm workload can feel overwhelming. All the theories of winter planning have must be put into action. Planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, marketing, selling, and, to top it off, wedding orders, are all colliding with what seems like the speed of a freight train. 

No matter the scale that any of us are working on, we all know the seasonal spikes inherent in farm work and what it feels like to be overwhelmed—or as we like to say “in the weeds”. Some of us are flower farming as a side gig. Some are doing it full time, solo or with a partner. Others of us have a full team to get the work done. We farm 18 acres (mixed vegetables and flowers) so it takes quite a crew on our scale. It may sound nice to have a huge group to accomplish the work (and it is!) but learning how to manage the flow and personalities is a whole other beast.

How to build your dream team of employees has been on my mind a lot lately for two reasons. First, because we are already deep into planning the ASCFG’s business-focused meeting where we will be touching on lots of employment and team management issues (Denver, February 18-19, 2018—mark your calendars!). But second, because we have been having major employee transitions at our own farm.

Recently, two of our longest-term employees, a husband and wife team who have worked for us for almost ten years, decided to move on to other work, in the middle of our busiest time. At first I was panicked, and maybe a little hurt. We run a crew of about 12 people in the summer, and they were the head of the veggie crew, in charge of all the other people who help with planting/weeding/harvesting of those crops. These two people are the hardest working folks I have ever known and we have been very close with their whole family, including seven kids—four of whom have worked at the farm at some time or another.

It was a bit of a shock when they gave their notice, but a blessing in disguise. Being a super hard worker doesn’t make you a good leader. We had known for a long time that they weren’t well suited for the management roles we had given them, but it felt too weird to rescind those roles, and all of our efforts to teach better management skills were not effective. They weren’t teaching new people how to do their job well, instead they were adding a lot of friction to the interpersonal dynamics of our entire staff. But we felt trapped. They knew how to do the work, and we felt responsible for their livelihood.

Let me back up a little and say that I have absolutely zero formal education in management. I have a degree in Agroecology, so I learned a lot about theories of how to feed the world without destroying the environment. But when it came to learning to manage a farm, that all came through trial and error, a LOT of error. That includes taking on our first employee, then an internship program, then a few handfuls of employees. My husband’s entire family is self-employed and self-educated, so at least he knows how to be scrappy. It has been a fun and wild rollercoaster as we have reveled in watching the farm grow and thrive. I love people (yeah, I think I would even say I am a people person) but managing them is not my favorite thing nor my strong suit. I would love to be able to just do everything myself. I know I could really use a course on the subject, but where does a farmer find the time? Maybe a good couple of books this winter will help me do better.

Luckily, my step-daughter, who grew up on the farm, then went out into the world, came back to work with us about a year and a half ago. She is still learning (or re-learning) all the specifics of how we do things around here. But she got some management training and experience while she was working in other fields and she came back with some tools to help us take our knowledge and deliver it to our team is a usable format.

We also contracted with a farm and food-based consulting service about a year ago. Our consultant has taught us so much about managing different aspects of the farm, from production to finances to people. It is amazing not to reinvent the wheel for everything we do. And sometimes it is just helpful to have an outside voice of reason confirm that yes, the rest of the business world does things like job interviews, performance reviews, time tracking, implementing codes of conduct and—occasionally—firing when all of the other things aren’t going well.

While it’s easy to get caught up in your day-to-day operations, you must to keep the big picture in mind. It felt impossible, initially, to get new people hired and trained to lead our veggie team. But with some reorganization and current employees stepping up to the plate, so far the last few weeks have been pretty darn smooth. My husband, step-daughter, and I have had to spend a lot more time helping out on the veggie crew but in the process we are ironing out kinks that had been set in place a long time ago. My stellar flower crew has had a lot more autonomy in daily work flow and design, as I have been needed in other areas, and they have proven how capable and competent they are. I am often scared of change, and this whole transition has been a great reminder not to be afraid. Sometimes what seems like a roadblock can actually be the path you forge to greater success and happiness.

My current goals for creating my dream team have to do with being a good teacher, setting clear goal and expectations, and (the hardest one for me) delegating. We are working diligently to create SOPs (standard operating procedures) for everything that we do, complete with videos and photos, where appropriate. We are creating more management roles where team members take responsibility and initiative towards the end goal. And last, but not least, making sure everyone is having fun and feeling appreciated. In some cases this means a raise, in some cases some fun team-building exercises. Often times it just takes having your lunch break in the barn with the new swamp cooler running (which as the box states, is like a cool lake breeze) and popsicles all around at the end of the work day.

Right now we have a team that I feel great about. Some have been with us for many years, some are new this season, and some have yet to be hired. But the processes we have set up, and the general feeling among the current crew are so much better than in our past, that I feel confident we can sail smoothly into the end of the busy season.

In the Winter issue I mentioned a film that was done about our farm and the flood we had last year. A few nights ago that film played at a local film festival. Our whole crew showed up, wearing their farm shirts, to show their support. We even got photos on the red carpet. Then we all went out for beer and pizza (and those of us who didn’t have a market in the morning went out dancing, too). It felt like our crew was closer than we have ever been and that was a very good feeling. [link to the film]

Hoping you all are surviving the summer and ironing out your own kinks. I can’t wait to see many of you in Raleigh this fall, and hopefully next year in Denver, too!

Photo 1 – Our new portable swamp cooler – purchased to help keep the flower processing barn a manageable temperature for the flowers – is helping keep the workers happy too.

Photo 2 – The farm crew comes to visit us at the farmers’ market – it is so valuable to have the fieldworkers see the final results of their labor – how great the vegetables and flowers look on display and how appreciative the customers are who come to purchase the final product.

Photo 3 – Sarah, one of our new flower crew members, reveling in the sweet pea tunnel harvest.

Photo 4 – Promo photo for the short film about our farm by Sean Openshaw.

Shanti Rade

Whipstone Farm

Shanti Rade Whipstone Farm Contact at [email protected]