STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – After 30 years of farming vegetables and fruits, Jim Crawford has developed a system of labor that works well for his 95-acre, certified organic vegetable farm.
Crawford explained his four-category labor system to an audience of vegetable growers at the recent Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference at the Penn Stater Conference Center in State College, Pa.
New Morning Farm, located in south-central Pennsylvania’s Hustontown, is owned and operated by Crawford and his wife, Moie.
The produce is direct marketed in the Washington, D.C., area through two farmers’ markets and a wholesale marketing cooperative they helped found, the Tuscarora Organic Growers.
Worth the cost. Crawford said that if a crop is worth planting, it is worth the labor cost of following through with cultivating, scouting, harvesting and marketing.
Although he started with three acres of rented land in 1972, Crawford said his mantra was true even then.
Many think hired labor is a luxury, Crawford said. He disagrees, pointing out that once planted, a crop is an investment. In order to maximize yields and sales, and thus not jeopardize the investment, one needs help.
The problems the farmers in their cooperative face, Crawford said, are almost all situations that timely labor could alleviate.
For instance, in a drought, growers need to obtain help with irrigation equipment. They must also perform timely scouting before pests become difficult to control.
Although labor is by far the largest expense, Crawford insists it is false economy to neglect things.
And because labor is such a large portion of costs, how it is managed becomes a determining factor in profitability.
Workers. Crawford employs one or two year-round helpers and about 15 seasonal workers. His system uses four categories of labor: high school students, local women, migrant labor, and apprentices.
High school students are hired seasonally to pick peas and beans on a piece-rate basis, earning $7.50 per bushel; most can fill a bushel in an hour, some more.
From that pool, Crawford finds the best workers and then pays them by the hour at higher rates.
A group of about five local women in their 40s to 70s love the farm work. Since they are not supporting a family, this mostly retired group prefers part-time rather than full-time work, receiving $8 an hour, with a bonus if they return for another season.
Crawford has just started using migrant labor. Two Mexican workers from Chambersburg, Pa., less than 40 miles away, work for the season. At his farm, Crawford provides a nice trailer for them to live in – rent-free – and a payment of $8 an hour.
Besides supplying the farm’s most important labor crew, the Crawfords’ apprenticeship program has helped a number of aspiring producers start farming.
Typically, the apprentices are six recent college graduates who live in a separate house on the farm, March through Thanksgiving. Highly motivated about sustainable agriculture and organic farming, this group communicates well.
The apprentices enjoy free room and board, plus a minimum of $800 a month. Bonuses are paid to those who return for subsequent seasons.
Managers. Crawford delegates a significant amount of farm management to the apprentices.
At the beginning of the season, the responsibilities are negotiated and assigned according to the jobs identified and charted into three tiers by Crawford.
At the top tier, the crew leader organizes tasks and people daily, and supervises the field workers. The field manager has responsibility for tilling, planting and managing fertility, plus maintaining and operating equipment and tractors. The produce manager handles inventory and quality control, pallet building and assisting the business manager with locating produce.
The second tier includes responsibilities for market supplies, overhead irrigation, drip irrigation, compost and outhouses, three separate cultivation areas, the chicken house, the Tuesday farmers’ market, pest control, and repairs and maintenance.
A diverse set of farm chores make up the third tier. These include field trials, groundhog control, chain-saw operation and maintenance, fire protection, truck driving, high tunnel management of ventilation and irrigation, operation and maintenance of tractor sprayers, organization and stocking of the horticultural operation, rye grass seeder operation, and a few others.
Crawford said his crew likes responsibility. Because somebody is in charge of each area and respective tasks, each crew member is able to focus on his own particular job. This system helps morale and enables the crew to function as a team.
Bonuses. Another thing that helps morale is Crawford’s belief in incentives.
Employees who gain experience by working for him for subsequent seasons are worth more to him; consequently, he pays bonuses. As a result, he generally enjoys a favorable carryover of employees.
All New Morning Farm employees are covered by workers’ compensation. Crawford advises farmers to study the state’s unemployment laws to determine that coverage as well.
Crawford said he prefers paying labor as opposed to not doing things right, and his philosophy has paid off – his farm has demonstrated continual sales growth and keeps expanding its facilities.
STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!
Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!