Elizabeth Higgins, agriculture business management and production economics specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, recently spoke about staffing considerations as part of a CCE series on agritourism.

Cultivating Supervision Skills

According to Higgins, management is the ability to get work done through other people, and being a successful supervisor requires a specific set of skills. “I think that especially for people who haven’t been supervisors it’s a huge change because there are a lot of differences between being somebody who’s really good at their own job versus being an effective supervisor of people,” she said.

A person may have the technical skills required to start an agritourism enterprise (for example, planning and planting a corn maze), but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have the management skills to lead the crew of high schoolers they hired to staff the maze.

Effective supervisors must cultivate specific skills: being open to feedback and personal change, supporting the development of their staff, communicating well and having good interpersonal skills.

Higgins said many people have roadblocks to being effective supervisors: “It’s just easier to do it myself” or “I don’t have time to train anyone.”

“These are mental models and beliefs that people have that really get in the way of being effective at supervising other people,” she said. Supervisors must be aware of their personal roadblocks and devise a strategy to overcome them. When a supervisor creates an environment where staff can be successful at their jobs, it ultimately expands the capacity to get the work done.

High schoolers and teens can make great additions to your agritourism enterprise staff – if you know what to look for.

Nailing Down the Job Description & Interview Process

In Higgins’s opinion, clear job descriptions are an essential part of the supervisor/employee relationship. Job descriptions help establish pay rates and make hiring easier.

“Onboarding, training and bringing these people on will be easier because you know what skills you need to give them, and they have a better sense coming in what they’re expected to do,” Higgins said.

With clear job descriptions in place, the interviewing process becomes easier. For seasonal agritourism operations that hire large numbers of staff at the beginning of the season, Higgins suggested a 90-minute group interview rather than traditional one-on-one interviews. The interview starts with icebreakers, followed by team building activities, such as lining up in birthday order with no talking. This simple task allows the hirer to observe who is a leader or who can follow directions.

The next step of the group interview is to rotate the potential employees through stations of skills activities like making change on a cash register or working with specific attractions. Finally, there is a round robin with interview questions. While this type of interview may not be effective for some jobs, such as management positions, Higgins thinks it gives the hirer a better understanding of peoples’ strengths and weaknesses and gives potential employees a better sense of the job.

Hirers should keep in mind that the employee skills needed for an agritourism enterprise are going to be very different from the skills necessary for production agriculture. For instance, a production farm seeking to offer a corn maze for the first time needs to be aware that someone who is good at baling hay may not have the skills to help run the maze.

“You need people who can interface with the public,” Higgins said. “You need people who can sell stuff or influence people to buy things. You need people who can be observant, who can notice what’s going on and adapt to that because when you’re dealing with the public, you’re dealing with a constantly shifting sense of priorities.”

Finding & Retaining Staff

To find local employees, Higgins suggested advertising on the agritourism business’s road signs, via an email blast to the customer mailing list, by giving a referral reward for current employees who encourage friends to apply, through online job sites such as Indeed and recruiting at local schools.

Social media is also a suitable place to advertise; business owners should keep in mind that if they are recruiting teenagers, TikTok may be the most suitable platform.

Higgins recounted that one farm has a connection with a local school to help them find employees. The school nominates a student for the “Good Apple Award” and the farm provides them with a gift certificate to the farm.

“It’s a way to build a connection between their farm and the local school that’s built on an ongoing relationship that allows them to recruit kids to work in their business,” Higgins said.

Once employees are found, supervisors should work to retain them. While pay and benefits are important to employees, Higgins said, the number one reason people quit a job is because they are disappointed with the management. To retain employees, supervisors must strive to provide a safe environment, manage conflict, recognize a job well done, provide flexibility and work/life balance and offer opportunities for growth.

Knowing the Laws

Finally, agritourism enterprises must be aware of federal and state employment laws. For example, most agritourism positions are not considered farm work and may not have overtime exemptions. Some youth employment agricultural exemptions, such as operating equipment, may not apply to agritourism positions. Just because a minor is allowed to operate a piece of haying equipment does not mean it’s permissible for the minor to pull a hay wagon loaded with customers.

“Just be aware that some of the things you take for granted in agriculture that are legal may not be legal in a nonagricultural job,” Higgins said.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin