How's Your Labor Situation?

Learn the basics about finding, training, and paying a crew to help your farm grow. Growers like you share their experiences about working with employees, including benefits, unexpected results and tips for motivating workers.

It doesn’t matter what field you’re in—retail, medical, service or yes, even flower growing—these days you’re running a business in a worker’s market. In July 2022 (the most recent labor data available at the time of writing), U.S. companies posted 11.2 million job openings for a market with 6 million unemployed workers (Barron’s, 9-5-22).

“As owners, we have to recognize that the pendulum always swings back and forth,” says Michelle Elston, owner of Roots Cut Flower Farm in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She’s been in business for 15 years, selling 60 percent wholesale to supermarkets and 40 percent retail at the farm, farmers’ markets or DIY bulk buckets to individuals.

“There will be a time again when we have 30 applicants for one position, but that time is not now,” she adds. While workers are in high demand and short supply, finding the right people, effectively training them, and earning their loyalty is an ongoing issue for many flower growers.

Moonshot Farm in East Windsor, New Jersey, has been raising blooms for three years, with the majority of their crops going to retail sales—CSA subscriptions, farmers’ markets, and on-site farmstand. Owner Rebecca Kutzer-Rice has “had employees since six months into the business. We’ve hired early and often, which has enabled our business to climb to the next level. On August 31 this year, we hit our gross sales of last year.”

Having a solid team is also the key to being able to leave the farm. “There were two years where my husband and I never left the farm. We recently went to the ASCFG Conference, left the whole farm in the hands of the crew, and it was fine,” Rebecca says. “Having employees is great and really important for every farm.”

Jen and Scott Joray are finishing their fourth growing season on Eastern River Farm in Pittston, Maine. The couple caters to wedding clients, “growing, harvesting and arranging for weddings as our primary enterprise,” Jen explains. Scott is wrapping up his first full-time year on the farm. “The leap we’ve made is probably what a lot of new farmers are actually experiencing: leaving a six-figure job to a position where you hopefully will get paid.”

Scott’s background includes a stint as a school administrator and before that, he owned his own materials chemistry company, where he managed teams of employees. Eastern River Farm has had at least one employee since their first season, with a plan to double down on equipment and labor to help the middle-aged owners cope with the sheer physicality of farming.

Having dependable labor makes all the difference when you have a growing family. "With a new baby this past year, we've really relied on the staff to keep things afloat when we're exhausted," says Rebecca Kutzer-Rice of Moonshot Farm in New Jersey
At Firm Root Farm, owner Kelci (right) shows off the farm's signature crop: sunflowers. Cristina (left) and Cara are bouquet makers who help assemble farmers' market bouquets. Cara also works farmers' markets and makes CSA deliveries. Kelci's favorite tool for keeping the business side running smoothly is Square software.

For Seth and Kelci Wright of Firm Root Farm in Muncie, Indiana, flower farming started as a side gig to their eight-year-old maple syrup business. They started cut flowers five years ago, and 2022 was their fourth season with Seth growing full time. These days, they’re doing brisk floral sales at local farmers’ markets and to florists, in addition to the syrup. The couple is full-time on the farm, with Kelci having just quit her teaching job a year ago. Their farm is at a point where they “need to utilize labor more to stay in business,” Seth shares. “We also need to learn how to utilize our labor better.”

Secrets to Finding Workers

Several factors weigh into finding reliable employees. It’s pretty standard for most growers to advertise on their websites, Facebook or Instagram feeds. In addition, many keep job descriptions posted on their websites so potential applicants can grasp the scope of what the job entails.

“We actually found two employees last year through Facebook postings,” Seth says, “but most haven’t worked out so well. We do better when we have a connection to a potential worker.” They discovered one of their bouquet makers at their farmers’ market flower bar. “I traveled to Africa last year for two weeks and she was able to manage the bouquet barn while I was gone,” Kelci says. Their most consistent worker is the daughter of a farmers’ market customer; another team member visited on an open farm day.

All told the Wrights have paid 12 workers this year. They’re all part-time, with some working only a few hours each week. Their primary worker puts in 12 to 15 hours weekly in the mornings. “As of August, we had paid 403 hours this year,” Kelci says, “making this our highest labor season than in the past.”

The crew at Moonshot Farm consists of Rebecca and husband, Mark, one full-time person at 40 hours a week and two part-time employees who log 8 to 12 hours weekly. “We’re constantly understaffed because of what we can afford, but we’ve had good success with more part-time people. That way we have a deeper bench to draw from, especially if someone is out sick,” she says.

Their biggest source for labor has been ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture, which is part of the National Center for Appropriate Technology. “It’s an ag internship website (, but we tend to hire entry-level people. It’s a great way to find people looking for farm work,” Rebecca says.

They also look to the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association—the New Jersey chapter has a classified ad page. “Trying to find places specific to farming has been a good approach for us,” she adds. “Coming to work at a farm, you really have to enjoy it. You get paid the same as stocking shelves at Walgreen’s,” she adds.

The work of farming is “not necessarily a skill set the average American has—working hard with your hands in an uncomfortable environment,” Scott adds. “Non-flower farms are mechanized, but flower farming is hard to mechanize with so many different crops. It’s labor intensive.” The Jorays have employed two full-time workers each season they’ve been farming. Their best worker lives next door, the child of a neighbor. “We’re so lucky to have him—and even more so that he keeps coming back,” Scott says. “He’s just crushing it.”

Know Your Labor Demographic

Scott and Jen find that their labor labor pool tends to fall into two categories: the college student who’s looking for summer employment (“They want to be outside because they’ve been inside the last nine months,” Scott says) or the 20- to early 30-something who’s in a state of transition. “The challenge with college students is that they can’t start until after the spring rush is done, and go back to school when our wedding season is kicking into gear. The other group drifts in and out spontaneously, which is challenging, too,” he adds.

Michelle also employs the young transitioning workforce. “A huge piece of figuring out the labor puzzle is understanding your labor force demographic—and expect it,” she says. “By and large I keep ending up with 20-somethings. That age group is still in the process of figuring out what they want to do. I have to hold loosely to them.”

She runs the farm with a crew of 16 people total: two full-time and the rest part-time. All workers are seasonal. She tends to keep people two to four years on average, but sometimes it’s just one season. “For a while the turnover with the 20-somethings was difficult—I took it personally,” she says. “Then I remembered I made a lot of changes in my 20s. They’re going to decide to partner up, go to grad school, have kids—we want that for them, but it also means that this job might not always be the best thing for them.”

As far as finding labor goes, Michelle’s farm has a “good reputation for being a good place to work. That has built its own repeating drive for people who want to be here,” she says. Another source she uses to find employees is a nearby college with a student farm. “We’ve had excellent workers from their program. They know farm work and they’re used to the hustle.”

At Eastern River Farm in Maine, the Joray family -- Jen, Scott and daughters -- value their farm workers. "We want to keep our team motivated and producing to the best of their ability without pushing them so much that they just walk away," Scott says.

Is Year-Round Work Necessary?

For many farms, the issue of year-round work hits hard. “When you’re on the fringe of the season and there’s no money coming in, it gets tricky,” Seth admits. “It’s paying someone to do things when you don’t know how you’re going to pay your own bills. It can be hard to get good employees when you can’t provide a year-round position or a pretty substantial seasonal position.” One of his greatest challenges is figuring out how to use people effectively in “those gaps of time between the busy times.”

Moonshot Farm is actually expanding its CSA to year-round sales, partly due to demand, but also in an effort to retain good workers by providing year-round employment. “Before, we would lay people off every fall and hire every spring, but now with year-round growing, we can retain our workers,” Rebecca explains. “We’re intentionally doing tasks we might not otherwise do, like starting lisianthus from seed in January, growing winter tulips, and making Christmas wreaths.

To provide year-round work, creative solutions can help. For instance, Kelci has been speaking with other local produce farmers about sharing workers. “The idea is that one farm would get a worker for certain days or hours in an effort to give the workers more hours than one farm can provide,” she says.

Whether or not year-round work is necessary really depends on your labor demographic. Michelle’s crew doesn’t want year-round work. “They want a break as much as I do,” she says. “Our season ends with a Christmas pop-up at the farm from November to early December, and then everyone is laid off from Christmas to late March. We don’t start our own first round of transplants in winter.”

This decision for a winter break is practical in part because the farm has no heated space, but it’s ultimately due to personal reasons: Michelle’s choice to spend time with her family. Her husband is a landscaper, and winter is his downtime, too. “That’s our family vacation time,” she says.

Wages, Benefits and Labor Budgets

As might be expected, pay rates vary regionally. In Indiana, Seth and Kelci are paying “better this year than in the past. We’re actually 50 percent higher on some of it,” Kelci says. Their hourly wage breaks down as follows: adult worker $15, college students $12, and high school students $10. “Of all the farmers I’ve talked to around here, we’re the highest paying,” she adds.

She’s adamant to pay well because their farm is farther away from town. “Our bouquet makers drive here and spend 8 hours. I want it to be worth their time to come here. We pay them for the full day, including to stop and eat lunch. Their work is so important to us,” she says. “I also love paying someone to wash buckets—that’s so worth it to me.”

Seth worked in town for years at a factory as a mechanical engineer. “A few years ago at the factory, welders were making $15 an hour. Things have shifted in the last year or two and we have to pay more. We won’t get anyone otherwise,” he adds.

In terms of overall farm budget, this year as of August, labor was hovering a little over 10 percent of gross sales. “The reality is that we have to do a higher volume of product to make ends meet and bring in the profits. That 10 percent should be closer to 20 percent,” Seth explains. “For us it’s coming down to figuring out how to find the right people and use the right people. It’s not even about the money at this point.”

At Eastern River Farm, 15 percent of the farm budget goes to labor. “I actually thought it would be a lot higher,” Jen says. “It feels like everything that comes in goes back out to invest in the farm. This was our first season where we really hit our goal financially.” It’s important to remember that percent of gross that goes to labor is highly dependent on farm size. For smaller farms, the number can skew because of owner labor hours.

Rebecca’s labor budget reflects a philosophy of “every chance we get, we’re raising pay. We really think that farm work should be a viable career option, not just something for a retiree or young person.” Their hourly pay rates range from $16.80 to $18.50, and they’re hoping to go a bit higher next year. (New Jersey minimum wage is $12, but ag ventures are not subject to that.) That brings their labor to at least 35 percent of the farm budget.

“I’m hoping we can change that by offering better pay and benefits. Year-round employment is going to help with that. We do try to pass those costs on in our products,” she adds. “If customers complain, we say we’re trying to pay a living wage.”

Rebecca is keen on offering benefits to employees. “I’m hoping next year I can offer some kind of retirement benefits like a simple IRA. We can’t afford health insurance, but I’m looking into more flexible benefits, like a qualified health care reimbursement plan. That could help cover copays pre-tax.” She also wants to cover expenses for employees to go to a farming conference for a day.

Michelle Elston (thired from left), owner of Roots Cut Flower Farm in Pennsylvania, encourges small business owners to cultivate relationships outside of work to maintain perspective. "There's a natural power and dedication imbalance between owner and employees, and it can be a strain on work friendships when owners forget that even the most deicated smployees cannot care as deeply about the business as the owner,"" she says. Photo by Olive & Oak Photography

Michelle has set a personal goal to get her whole crew above $15 an hour. Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is at $7.25, but the conversation was started in the legislature to raise it to $12 with a path to $15. “That figure is in people’s minds as an acceptable starting wage, and for farms that’s really hard,” Michelle says.

Three years ago her hourly rates mirrored the Wrights: high school $10, college $12. “Shifting that to $15 in one year is a challenge,” she adds. “My supermarket clients aren’t going to automatically give me $1 to $2 more per bouquet because I want to pay my workers more.”

She aims to keep her labor budget at 32 to 33 percent. “Carlisle is the trucking capital of the world, and there are wage signs posted up and down the roads here, including a $2,000 to $3,000 sign-on bonus. That’s for unskilled labor at warehouses. I’ve had to really work hard to get my head around this,” she admits. “It’s made me ask what is driving those bonuses? What am I offering? A positive work environment. People who are motivated by money are probably not going to be loyal, dedicated workers for me.

“It’s taken me a year to get there mentally and to have the right words for my team. We’re still in that tension of getting our workers up to a good wage and be financially sustainable,” she shares. “This work would be impossible without my crew, and I love them. I couldn’t produce 27,000 bouquets on my own each year.”

Turnover and Training

Next to finding good workers, keeping them is another task altogether. Part of that success comes in hiring the right people, which is even trickier if you don’t have a large pool of candidates to start. “I have found that it’s important for people to have an appreciation of nature. When our workers see what their efforts are doing for nature, that motivates them,” Jen says.

In terms of management, she checks in frequently on emotional status, trying to read people and gauging what they’re comfortable with. “That’s probably been key to our keeping the young man we have now—giving him what he needs,” she says. “I’ve asked him to evaluate and share his experiences this season: what went well, what didn’t, what we can do to make his experience better at our farm. We value who he is and value him as part of this team. That’s the message I try to communicate with our crew.”

Michelle also focuses on helping her team understand that they’re important, valued and their work makes a difference. “When they know that they’re doing good work that matters, that adds to job satisfaction,” she says. “I ask my crew what I can do to have them come back next season, and mostly they say they’re happy and plan to come back. We usually have 50 to 75 percent return. Our lowest ever is 30 percent.”

Having overlap year to year makes a big difference in terms of training. Experienced people can come alongside new workers to encourage them. “I partner people with experienced workers all the time,” Michelle says. “People like being the expert in something and showing a new person how they figured it out. That’s fun for them.”

For supermarket bouquets, the focus is speed and efficiency -- "the 40 second bouquet," owner Michelle Elston of Roots Cut Flower farm, calls it. "On a given day we might make 450 bouquets, starting with cutting in the morning, cleaning, making, sleeving -- with a crew of eight people."
Seth Wright, owner of Firm Root Farm in Indiana, shows off his favorite flower, celosia. His dream hire? "Someone who could duplicate me," he laughs. He juggles the entire field operation, along with the maple syrup business.

In industry, Scott says, “It would cost us about $56,000 to find someone and train them, and then it was a good year before they were capable of really doing something. Farming’s not the same, but the principles apply. As the owner, if I’m having to harvest alongside someone, that employee isn’t really self-sufficient and contributing to the whole.”

The Jorays really experienced the benefit of a returning worker this year. “Our worker would come to me and ask if he should cut something for a longer stem length or cut it shorter and leave more bud for future harvest,” Jen shares. “He’s at a point where he can help continue to train someone new and we can tag-team train. We just presented him with a letter of reasonable assurance on our letterhead that he will be hired back next season in May at $18 per hour, with three paid days off. He actually cried when I gave him the letter because he was so happy.”

Moonshot Farm started out the year really strong on training. “We hired two full-time employees, had a three-day orientation that was very formal and set a nice tone. Onboarding people together was nice,” Rebecca shares. “Three weeks later, one of the people quit. Ever since then, our training has been more on the go and by the task: training on how to do a task.”

One trick Rebecca learned from the ASCFG Ask an Expert webinar series on labor management by Mike and Polly Hutchison of Robin Hollow Farm is to do a 5- to 10-minute check-in. “I give instructions, let the worker start, and then come back 5 to 10 minutes later to double-check on them. If the task isn’t being done correctly, you can catch it early.”

She has also added more standard operation procedures (SOP)—“tasks we do frequently but not so frequently that it’s easy to remember. For instance, we plant lilies every two weeks but it has to be done a specific way. There are a lot of little steps. I developed a lily planting SOP that’s typed up with photos,” she explains. “Every two weeks, when the lilies come, I encourage people to read the SOP to refresh on the process.”

Motivating Your Crew

Keeping workers happy and motivated is a key to job satisfaction—and a balancing act. Seth has found that “trying to provide some diversity of acts and tasks helps keep people productive. We had one fellow that was coming and doing just weeding. At the start he was good, but as the season went on, he got slower and slower. What you have that monotony, people get burned out.”

With their current field worker, Seth has trained her on cutting. “That’s one thing we really need good help for, but it’s hard to train for. I make sure we have buckets for her when she comes, and she’s independent. We also have other tasks for her, like weeding or washing buckets. She’s not as fast at cutting as I am, so if that was all she was doing, we wouldn’t get our money out of that. But she’s happy with the role of rotating responsibility,” he explains.

"The key to success with workers is managing the expectations of the farmer and the employee. When you can get those two things as close as possible, that's when you have success," says owner Scott Joray, Eastern River Farm, Maine.

Michelle has program review days at the beginning and end of the season, where the staff gathers and discusses the two main programs of the business: supermarket bouquets and Christmas wreaths. “These reviews are really powerful for my team. All staff comes, and I make pages of notes on feedback. We discuss minutiae, and they think it’s so fun,” she shares. “So many procedures are borne out of the previous years’ review systems and the comments people make.”

For instance, cleaning asters used to be 20 minutes per Procona bucket. One worker, Zoe, turned an aster bunch upside down to strip it, and it became a 6-minute aster bucket. “Now that’s what we do, and we make a big deal out of that. We call it the ‘Zoe Method.’ Everyone gets excited about that because everyone has a voice.”

The other thing Michelle uses to learn how to motivate her team members is a personality test. “We do this at the beginning of every season,” she says. “I tell people at hiring we’re going to do that. It’s a gift to my people—they learn about their strengths, their communication style, how they receive info best. I can factor in these things to manage and motivate my team better in ways that are meaningful to them. It’s probably more fun for me than anyone else, but it’s very helpful.”

In the past Michelle has used a free personality test she found online, but last year she invested $500 in a speaker, Rebecca Dunning from North Carolina State University, to administer the Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment. “I also pay staff wages during that training, which would be at least 30 hours. This is a pretty big investment for the farm, but worth it,” she says.

The crew at Moonshot Farm consists of Rebecca and husband, Mark, one full-time person at 40 hours a week and two part-time employees who log 8 to 12 hours weekly. “We’re constantly understaffed because of what we can afford, but we’ve had good success with more part-time people. That way we have a deeper bench to draw from, especially if someone is out sick,” she says.

Their biggest source for labor has been ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture, which is part of the National Center for Appropriate Technology. “It’s an ag internship website (, but we tend to hire entry-level people. It’s a great way to find people looking for farm work,” Rebecca says.

Julie Martens Forney

Freelance Writer

Contact her at [email protected]