December 10, 2019

Companies must take the lead in getting new talent up to speed with ag fundamentals

By Mike Karst, Senior Partner 

There’s something special about people who grow up on a farm.

Farm kids have certain “baked-in” qualities that give them an advantage right out of the gate. There’s of course the process knowledge of operating a farm, but there are also the less-teachable qualities like having a tough work ethic, initiative, communication skills, and understanding the value of relationships.

Yes, the farm prepares you for life in a way no other lifestyle can.

We spend a lot of time talking with retailers and growers, and there’s palpable frustration in the field with the work climate in rural America. Ag businesses are scouting from a talent pool that looks and acts differently than it did 20 years ago. This is partly due to young people choosing metropolitan over rural lifestyles. But another reality is that fewer grads are entering the job market with basic ag knowledge and those qualities that make farm kids so special.

In the past, ag businesses could pluck the talent they needed from local farm families. Those hires came with 5-10 years of on-farm experience, so a quick training on product knowledge and sales skill-building was all it took to get them off and running.

When you’re accustomed to hiring people who have been working on the farm since they were 12 years old, it seems as if those entering the industry for the first time are years behind. And as a result, ag businesses are scrambling to figure how to make up for that deficit.

Whether it’s a precision ag technician who grew up in the city and has never set foot in a cornfield, or a seasonal tractor operator who just wants to put in eight hours and be done, ag businesses are finding they have to cover fundamentals they’ve never needed to in the past.

How do you fill in the blanks when there are holes in a candidate’s knowledge and experience? What do you do when they have technical skills you need, but they just don’t “get” what it takes to work in agriculture? How do you teach agriculture to someone who wasn’t born and raised with it?

Widening the Net

New technology has opened up career paths and created more specialized roles, and ag businesses must find creative ways to fill them. This will entail pursuing candidates from disciplines outside of ag and attracting attention of solid contenders with no ag background to consider ag as a potential career.

Ag does a poor job promoting itself as a viable industry and job market. And let’s face it—our vast industry can be rather intimidating to outsiders. We need to get better at welcoming non-traditional candidates and the new perspectives they bring.

For starters, we cannot dismiss non-ag applicants—though they may lack on-farm experience, they may have other knowledge and skill sets that are valuable.

Or maybe you can adjust the job requirements and cast a wider net. This does not mean lowering your standards, but it could benefit you to think critically about what skills are truly required and which ones can be learned on the job.

Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t unusual for retailers to ask every agronomy salesperson to pass the certification test in their state. Now most retailers have a few certified agronomists that support a larger team of sales representatives. This allows them to spend less money keeping certifications current, but also to hire sales staff from a broader pool of applicants.

Teaching Young Dogs Old Tricks

There’s no way around it—companies must invest more time and resources on training and education. It may feel remedial to you, but ag newbies have to learn it somehow, so it might as well come from you.

Look at this as an opportunity and not a burden—you can train them to be what you need them to be.

Here are some ways to get that done:

Immerse new employees in the field.

They need to see how customers operate, how the grower-retailer relationship works, and what it means to scout a field. They need to experience what it’s like for growers during the busiest times of the year so they can fully comprehend the urgency and pressures they and their suppliers are going through. Job shadowing programs where trainees go to a retail operation or farm to work for a period of time are highly beneficial.

When my colleague Nancy Appelquist took a job with Cyanamid early in her career, her background was supply chain but she had no previous ag experience. She said a little Ag 101 was really helpful for her and her fellow non-farm kids. “My customer service team was hired locally in New Jersey and didn’t have ag experience, so we spent a day at a research farm talking about the chemistry and seeing it in action. Nothing can replace having that chance to stand in a field see your product firsthand.”

For those people expected to have significant interactions with field-based customers, it will take more dedicated time to complete an Ag 101 course and then move on to advanced training about their respective product portfolios. Employers will need to invest significant resources in formal training and testing to make sure that new recruits learn the required lessons.

Push mentor relationships.

As the senior members of your team retire, they’re taking their intellectual capital with them; and if that expertise hasn’t been passed down the line, they’re just leaving younger colleagues in a confusing maze to navigate blindly. But the reality is new people aren’t taking initiative to seek out mentorships, and senior team members aren’t going out of their way to provide it. Clearly they’re not going to come together without a little help, so priority must be given to encouraging these relationships.

Of her time getting started at Cyanamid, Nancy says, “I was fortunate to have people willing to take the time to show me how the industry works. I remember one manager was deliberate in setting aside time to explain to me why retail and distribution works this way, and what growers like and don’t like.”

Mentoring can go both ways. A senior person will have much to share with a person new to the industry.  However, we should not overlook the obvious fact that today’s new employees are likely to be much more tech savvy. This then leads to a symbiotic relationship where both parties use their strengths to help fill the others’ weaknesses. 

Maintain an inclusive and hospitable culture.

Great talent can come from many different places, and you want to make sure the culture and climate in your organization is inclusive and not alienating the people you intend to keep. One of the many benefits of mentorships is that—when done well—they can help employees find their place and feel welcome.

Your senior employees need to understand that being a mentor means you’re going to be guiding people with different backgrounds from your own—both men and women, and people who grew up with different experiences—and the mentors in your company must be accepting of the norms that others bring into the professional workplace. Create an environment that helps people learn the business and be successful, not one that makes them feel like outsiders.

Teach the ag work ethic—don’t assume they already have it.

It can be frustrating when an employee just doesn’t “get it,” but keep in mind there’s good reason for that.

One of our readers, a location manager for a large retailer, shared an ah-ha moment he had with a young seasonal employee from the city who had come out to work for him for the summer. The young man seemed to be spending a lot of downtime standing around, so the manager pointed out that the warehouse always needed to be swept and it would be a productive way to spend those slow periods.

Several days passed and he never once picked up a broom. “Out of frustration one day I walked out in the warehouse, spread some sweeping compound around and proceeded to clean the warehouse floor myself,” he says. “After several minutes the young man asked why I had spread ‘saw dust’ around before sweeping the floor. It dawned on me then that he didn’t know how to use a push broom…something every farm kid learns at a very early age.”

After the manager explained the safety reasons for controlling dust and showed him how to use the broom, the young man offered to finish sweeping the warehouse. And he kept the place spotless the rest of the summer. He says, “It was a reality check for me to not assume every young person has the advantage of growing up with a dad who teaches them.”

Partner with academia to advance programs with hands-on learning opportunities.

There’s often a disparity between what students are learning in the classroom and their actual job responsibilities. But businesses should view this as an opportunity: By connecting with students at the college level you can create more direct paths to the roles you need to fill.

More specialty roles exist today, but not all require a 4-year degree. Businesses and academia can join forces to provide job-specific hands-on learning…in fact there are plenty of great examples of this happening now. In the last issue we talked about Vincennes University’s new agricultural center that houses a joint project with John Deere to educate technicians with hands-on training on their latest technology. Look at it from John Deere’s point of view – what better way to ensure next year’s candidate pool has exactly the skills you’re looking for? Train them yourself on your own equipment.

Training and Education is THE Key to Ag’s Future

The need for training will continue to grow—not just on the skills required for the job, but also to make up for the missing experiences and intrinsic knowledge that comes from growing up with a farming lifestyle. Most of these qualities can be taught, because they’re learned from experience. So the key is giving your employees those experiences so they can become ingrained.

Companies need to accept the fact that you’re not likely to get young, new employees fully baked upon arrival. But this can be a good thing…if they’re going to be only partially baked when they get to you then you might as well have a say in what they’re learning.

What knowledge and experience gaps are you seeing with job candidates? I would welcome the chance to visit with you about your experiences. If you’d like to discuss your situation and possible solutions, give me a call at 901.753.0470 or email