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The role of paid farmhands on small farms - SEEKING INPUT  RSS feed

 
Matt Smaus
Posts: 37
Location: Minneapolis, MN
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Hi folks, I'm new here, and this is my first attempt to access the collective wisdom of the permies hive. I'm writing an article about getting paid to work on farms, and have the following questions:

Does anyone here run a commercially-successful small farm with any year-round employees? If so, how does it work for you? What's the value? How has it changed your operation?

and

Does anyone here work as a paid employee for a small farm, or have you in the past? If so, how has it worked for you? What is/was the value? How does/did it effect your learning or commitment to farming?

I'm currently a year-round paid farm employee on a diversified small farm outside Seattle, and I know others that have found similar positions -- not as stipended interns, but as year-round paid hands. My thesis is that there is a growing niche for skilled, paid employees on small farms, based on my observations that (1) more farms "making it" are having a difficult time finding reliable, skilled labor, (2) skilled labor comes at a cost but creates more value for the farm, and (3) we underestimate the value for up-and-comers of spending more time with experienced farmers before trying to make it on their own.

I understand that many small farms do not have the resources to pay employees, and I plan to acknowledge the value of internships and apprenticeships in the article, as well, so please do not react defensively to this post. I'm looking for personal accounts of places where this works, and why.

Thank you!
 
Matu Collins
Posts: 1976
Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
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I have worked as a paid employee for a small farm in the past. It was very valuable for the experience. I love working outside and I love letting other people do the bookkeeping. I learned a lot, had all the veggies I could eat, and really enjoyed the company of the 3 other workers and many volunteers.
The pay was abysmal and it was not full time. Given the same circumstances I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
It was not year round, I think it was May through October
 
Paul Ewing
Posts: 127
Location: Boyd, Texas
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I am interested in the responses. I would love to find reliable people with some experience as workers. I really don't like the whole intern thing since it really seems to be exploitation to get free or cheap labor. If I cannot make my farm profitable while paying at least minimum wage to any worker then I need to change things. For some reason it is easier for farms to find people willing to work for nothing but a bit of food and shelter than to find someone willing to work for even $12/hr as an employee. Am I off and expected wages are much higher than this for semi skilled farm hands now?
 
Matt Smaus
Posts: 37
Location: Minneapolis, MN
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Where are you, Paul? I'm a farmhand near Seattle, WA, where they're considering raising the minimum wage to $15, which means the opportunity cost for low-paid farmhands around here is very high! That said, farms are in a unique position to leverage their assets to create additional value for the farmworker while costing the farmer very little. I'm sure you have thought about this stuff, but an example is housing--a farmer usually has an odd corner they could use for a mobile home. You can buy one used for under $30k including installation, setup, and licensing. If that lasts you 15 years, it amortizes to about $2500/year including maintenance. Meanwhile, it replaces $5000-10,000 in rent for the employee. That creates a lot of value. Other examples include giving the employee access to land for his or her own garden and use of the farm's machines to work it, raising a beef cow with the herd, getting a couple CSA boxes to trade, etc.

As a matter of fact, I've written the article I was seeking input for, and it will be published by Acres USA in their May or June issue. It's all about the getting the best value from paid labor on small farms, both for the farmer and the farmworker. Not to make you wait that long....
 
Paul Ewing
Posts: 127
Location: Boyd, Texas
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Thanks Matt for the response. I will watch for the article in Acres. I'll leave aside the whole idea of doubling the minimum wage since I can't see how that will really help anyone in the end after inflation adjusts through the system in a year or so.

I do agree with your idea about providing housing and I am working on doing that now. I just finished putting a new roof on and gutting out my great aunts' old farmhouse here and am going to remodel it with new electric, wall coverings, and appliances for possible farmhand housing. Or maybe it will be a certified kitchen I am not sure yet... Anyway I already have two rental houses on the land across the road from my house that I could use, but the vacant one at the moment is a pretty nice house that rents in the $1000-$1100 range. It would work for a family with a couple older kids I guess, but it would take a good chunk of pay out of the picture.

I would actually be fairly happy with providing garden and/or pasture space to someone staying here. One of my hopes/dreams would be for someone to come that read Salatin's Pastured Poultry Profits book and has grand ideas about doing that. I would train them on how I raise them currently and after working for me for a couple batches as an employee take over the whole chicken enterprise. They can use my land and infrastructure and I just take 10% or so from sales to my customers. They can market their own as well if they want. I like the idea of chickens and what they can do to improve pastures, but I really just don't like chickens that much as an animal. I much prefer my cattle, pigs, and sheep. My customers want chickens too though. Same thing with veggies. I made money for college with a 2 acre market garden, but I don't have time to do that and I am really getting to a point I am not that interested in bending over all day either.

 
Walter Jeffries
Posts: 1095
Location: Mountains of Vermont, USDA Zone 3
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Matt Smaus wrote:I understand that many small farms do not have the resources to pay employees


Yet, not having the money doesn't seem to stop people from hiring help. I know of a lot of farms that have hired hands but can't afford to pay themselves so they work-off the farm to earn enough money to pay the hired help. Crazy.

I would suggest instead focusing on getting the farm to the point where it pays its expenses, then pays you, then if you want to hire make sure you have enough extra to pay the help plus all the added costs of taxes and such.

Realize that when you have employees then you come under more government rules. Know the rules first. Your state department of agriculture should have information on this. Then contact the tax department and the labor department for their rules, requirements and forms.
 
Dustin Powers
Posts: 42
Location: Washington State
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I live in WA, and if they raise minimum wage to 15/hr it will force me to fire my farm hands who dont have 15/hr skills. It basically forces me to skip over less skilled labor because I cant afford the labor.

Thank you all knowing government for discriminating against unskilled labor for me, the fair agreement I have with my labor now is clearly not working well enough..
 
Dustin Powers
Posts: 42
Location: Washington State
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I bought my land and hand built a 4000sqft house to attract labor by offering free rent and crop abundance sharing. I call most of them interns and have a waiting list.

I pay a couple employees 10/hr, local 20 year olds with chainsaws, to clear,thin, coppice, and maintain my wood lot.

The interns so far have been unskilled, hence their willingness to work so cheap.

The saw guys are skilled at what they do and agree 10/hr, plus free berries, is fair.
 
We've gotta get close enough to that helmet to pull the choke on it's engine and flood his mind! Or, we could just read this tiny ad:
The $50 and Up Underground House Book by Mike Oehler - digital download
https://permies.com/wiki/23442/digital-market/digital-market/Underground-House-Book-Mike-Oehler
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