How to Hire the Right Person for Your Farm (FSFS184)



Hiring can be a difficult prospect for any operation, be it your first employee or even your most recent of many. In this episode Jeremey Tolley, who has spent the last 20 years working in HR hiring hundreds of professionals, shares his expertise, so your next hiring prospect doesn’t need to feel so daunting.  


Can you talk about your background in hiring people? (16:30)

I’ve been in HR for my entire career. I’m a chief people officer in a national healthcare company based in Nashville, Tennessee. We have about 1,000 employees. My niche is in helping organizations to get the most out of their people resources. I oversee recruitment, HR, training, and development, employee relations. I specialize in hiring the right “talent resources” to fulfill the mission of the company.


Is something like posting directly to Instagram the best way to start bringing candidates into the hiring funnel or is there a better more targeted way? (19:30)

When you are hiring for small scale farming you are looking for people who resonate with what you are doing on the farm. You have to hire for heart. Someone who is willing to stay and willing to give their blood, sweat, and tears. Those people are probably connected to you through social media, so it’s a great way to start. Folks through your CSA. Being more targeted about your post is smart. If you post an add you will have a lot more to sift through.


Referrals can be a strong way to go. The person who is referring has a better chance of giving you a quality person who they know can do the job. Their reputation is also on the line. We did a study and found that with referrals in our company we had nearly twice the retention rate vs. those hired from outside.


Can you predict for retention during your initial interview? (21:30)

It’s tough to predict. I’ve had one employee for twenty years. People change jobs now more than ever. Life happens. Focusing on longevity can be a mistake. If it takes you a lot of resources to hire and train that can be a focus, but it should be a balance of also finding the right fit. You can have someone who doesn’t have a good work ethic who sticks around forever.


Is the new paradigm that people are going to change jobs more? (25:30)

That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. But you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. People are looking to grow their careers. They are thinking; Am I growing here? It becomes a question of whether you’re providing the right opportunities for a person to grow and develop. People want a balance of you to be their boss and manage them, but also flexibility and independence. It takes intentionality to tend to them just like your crops so they can grow with your business.


On a small farm there’s only so much growth an employee can experience vs. working at a large company like Starbucks. Does the farm have to grow to incentivize people? (27:50)

Career growth doesn’t have to just mean a title, it can also refer to someone who might want to own their own farm for example. It depends on the person’s motivations. This is important, getting to the heart of what the company wants and what the employee wants and making them match. Some people want to stick around in a place they fit, and some people want to grow and move on – so consider hiring them but investing less time in them.


Should there be a discussion of goals during the interview? Specifics of how long they might stick around for? (31:50)

Yes. It’s probably not your first question. If they are a fit and you find out they want to start their own farm you can agree to help them reach their goal. You should make a verbal agreement for how long they are sticking around and then invest in teaching them.


Should there be a trial period of roughly 60 days or so? (35:30)

Yes. Having a set point of evaluation can be good – even though that is a false date, you can evaluate them at any time. Since you are an at-will employer being a small farm you have the right to let them go at any time. Be careful to not turn someone off though – you might scare someone off with a trial period. It’s more important to communicate on an ongoing basis so everyone knows where things stand, not just on that 60-day mark.


What’s your gut feeling on how many people are interested in being invested employees who want to become part of the work-family vs. those who are just looking for a job to make a living and bring home money? (42:00)

I think about half are just doing it to get a paycheck. Keep in mind I work in healthcare. People can get tired from not being able to make the difference they initially thought they were going to be able to make. I feel about 10% of people are highly passionate about what they do. The folks who are listening to this podcast are the 10%. 


You can vet that out by asking people; What is your connection to small scale farming? They might not be able to articulate that at first, so you may have to ask questions to get that out of them. Ask open-ended questions; What would it mean to you to work on a farm like this? Make the interview more like a conversation.


You can use a technique called behavioral interviewing to get to their motivations. Past behaviors are the best indicator of future behavior. Ask them about a specific time they delivered customer service. And then follow up with the key question: Why did you do that? Then listen to get their motivation. Another behavioral question is: Tell me about a time you had to miss work unexpectedly. How did you feel? Look for an answer that describes how they felt like they let the team down because they weren’t there to do their part of the work.


Do you need to come into the interview with questions or a script or can you just wing it? (52:30)

You want to begin with the end in mind. Know the work that needs to get done. Write a job description. What are the skills they need, the equipment they will operate? By writing it down you’ll realize what you’re looking for. 


Many managers, new or experienced, think they can just wing it. But the traditional interview is the least likely indicator of job fit. You can be duped if you are not prepared. Make sure you have the questions ahead of time so you ask the right questions for the job.


The most likely predictor is a behavioral assessment, and if you have the time, give them a realistic job preview. Take them on the farm to see the good, bad, ugly. Pay them to come on-farm for a day and challenge them with jobs they are going to face. Self-selection out of a job can be one of the best tools you have. People will realize quickly if that’s not what they want to do.


Are references worth following up on? (56:40)

They are if they are real references. Get a reference from a previous supervisor, not someone they can call and prep. I think you should follow up on references, but they are low on my list of evaluating a candidate.


Should you have an objective test to evaluate someone with – such as asking them to complete a task where they’re performance will be considered against other candidates? (1:00)

It is, if you can find a challenge you can expect them to be capable of doing of coming into the interview. Be careful since farming is highly specialized.  


Look out for something out that training can solve, you don’t want to disqualify someone when training could clarify something they weren’t aware of. You can test for people’s ability to discern for quality – such as giving them a selection of produce in various states and asking them which ones would or would not go to a customer. You can test for spatial awareness – such as in row distance between carrots.


How do you select for someone who is willing to do monotonous work like packing or piece work day in and day out? (1:06)

You would be limiting your selection pool considerably. On a small farm you certainly can find a variety of tasks for them to do. I would go to the ends of the earth first to try and diversify the job. If there needs to be a lot of monotony on job make a question during the interview about it. Site an example when you had to do a job over and over and how did you feel about that?


You should be upfront about that monotony if it’s part of the job. You should show them those tasks during the job interview. Make sure to convey why it’s important. Let them know they are quality control for example, that they are selecting for a product that will go to an account and those customers have expectations you’ll be looking out for.


Do you ask the opinion of other employees during the hiring process to determine workplace fit? (1:13)

There’s a difference between management and leadership. You will have to manage people a lot if you have an environment where they are not getting along. To lead you need to have other team members participate in the interview so you don’t have to manage them on a day to day basis. I always have other people on the team as part of the interview. It can be part of their day on the job interview. Have the members of the team meet with the candidate and meet with them afterward. Giving your team members the chance to voice concerns will do a lot to clear the air from the beginning since they will feel like they are being heard.


Do you tell the candidate from the beginning about the entire interview process? The day on the farm or being evaluated by others? When do you discuss how the on-farm trail went? (1:16:20)

No, you want to find out if they are a fit after the first part of the interview process before you commit to taking them to the next stage of being interviewed on the job.


You want to follow up the next day – not right away so you can consider how things went and discuss it with others. Even if the interview didn’t go well you want to discuss that with them and let them have a chance to discuss why the interview didn’t go well. It’s better to not try and break it to them easy, be honest about how it went because it’s better for them to know the truth. 



If you’re looking to hire now or in the future, hopefully, you took some of Jeremy’s advice to heart. He was generous with his advice and had a lot to contribute, so no matter where you are in the hiring process this episode has something to offer you. We look forward to having Jeremy back on the podcast in the future, so if you want to have him answer some questions on the show, or just want to let him know what you thought, drop him a line on his Instagram or his website.


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