Issues we’ve faced
(i) finding the right people
We’ve found that experienced growers are rare, and it’s a lot easier to find inexperienced people who want to learn how to grow commercially – but, crucially, it’s difficult to find those with the right attributes for the job.
Unicorn’s ideal, when buying the land, was to find some experienced growers to take on the site. Adverts were placed in appropriate horticultural magazines & websites, but only a smattering of applications came in. Only one couple really stood out as a serious option, but then they pulled out due to changing family circumstances, leaving Unicorn’s project at a standstill. It was a sobering experience that seemed to reflect a skills gap in organic horticulture.
This led to the creation of Moss Brook Growers by us two Unicorners – with some useful retail experience but hardly any commercial organic growing experience. We’ve been lucky that, between us, we have a good range of skills that has kept us going so far. It’ll be years, though, before we’ll feel able to call ourselves ‘experienced’.
In order to grow the business, we knew we need to recruit more growers. In 2011 we started a purposefully long process of looking for a third grower. We took a lot of volunteers on site, worked alongside them, and put out an advert for a long-term volunteer / trainee position, with the hope of providing a paid position in 2012. We felt a long approach was best because, while some of the qualities we were looking for were quickly identifiable, many others take longer to discern.
Some of the more tangible and quickly identifiable attributes we were looking for are:
- speed of work – e.g. how many kg harvested per hour, or how many metres of crop rows hoed per hour
- thoroughness of work – e.g. quality of harvested crops, thoroughness of weeding
- practical / logical approach – e.g. working with machinery, thinking through problems
- prioritising jobs – e.g. what crops to work on first
- time management – e.g. fitting all necessary work into a day, not being late for customers
- good with numbers – e.g. writing invoices, crop planning
- IT proficiency – e.g. crop planning spreadsheets, record keeping
- ability to listen, learn and communicate – essential to working in a small team
- driving licence – preferably clean!
Speed and thoroughness of work are the two biggest factors, and the ones we note first. However, that only marks out a good worker, someone that would be managed. We’re looking for a fellow grower, someone to manage themselves and take equal part in all the veg growing decisions, which is where many of the other attributes come into play. And we’re also looking for the new grower to be a fellow member of our co-operative – a co-director – which adds extra elements.
The trickier part to finding a new grower is judging some of the more intangible – but equally important – qualities in someone. We’ve found it takes several times of working alongside someone to see these attributes, including:
- drive – e.g. we all have our off-days, when we’re not on top form, but can you work through it? Can energy levels be sustained over a long period? Does pace slacken when working on one’s own?
- commitment – e.g. working long days for small financial reward? Responding to extraordinary events and working extra hours? What about commitment to wider principles of organic farming, the environment, and co-operation?
- initiative – e.g. freshness of mind, coming up with new ideas, thinking through and researching solutions to problems, whilst being practical and realistic.
(ii) holidays / sick days
We haven’t yet created a holiday policy, but hope to do so soon. The main issue is dealing with short notice time off, whether for sick or otherwise. It’s incredibly hard to draft in some cover at one or two day’s notice, let alone on the morning of the day itself – as such, there is a big risk of letting customers down. The only long-term solution we can think of at the moment is to try and make sure there’s always two people rota’d to work on any given day, so if one person has to take short-notice leave then the other person can (theoretically) cover. The difficulties with this, however, are: (i) that the day’s workload will be too much for one person and (ii) at certain times of year, and whilst we are still building up to full production, there are many days when we cannot afford to rota two people. So this is an issue we are still thinking through.
Holidays or leave that have been arranged in advance are obviously a lot easier to deal with, but can still create problems. For example, in 2011, full staffing in the summer was 1 person full-time and 1 person part-time. It was difficult for the part-time person (who works part-time elsewhere too) to cover the full-time person when they went on holiday. When we have more staff, however, we anticipate this problem getting easier to deal with.
(iii) level of pay
At the moment our wage rate is £6.20/hr, just above national minimum wage. This is realistic in terms of our lack of experience (i.e. we’re not as efficient at growing veg as more experienced growers are and therefore our wage has to reflect this or else our veg becomes prohibitively expensive) as well as the fledgling state of our business (i.e. we’re not up to full production and there’s still lots of capital outlay, so money is tight).
It’s realistic, but it can bring some issues. For us this is primarily the need to look for other work (especially in winter) to supplement the lowly income from the veg growing, but it will also undoubtedly have some effect on our recruitment. For other businesses (thankfully not ours) the low level of pay might make it impossible for workers to live near their growing site, as rents might be too high.
The other thing to note is that our current rate of pay is only possible because this is our own business. For businesses that are not co-operatives or partnerships, and where a more conventional employer-worker relationship exists, then wage levels must adhere to the latest Agricultural Wages Order, which has different minimum wages according to different grades and categories of workers.
(iv) pensions / maternity & paternity / childcare
We still haven’t got as far as having a full range of policies on staff benefits, and have just been dealing with things as they come up. Pensions seem like the really difficult one, with two issues standing out:
(a) for the pension to become any meaningful amount, we would presumably need to contibute a high percentage of wages. This could have a crippling effect on the production costs of our vegetables, especially when compared with so many of our veg growing competitors whose workforce is primarily cheap Eastern European seasonal workers
(b) are there any genuinely ethical options for investing pension money?
We’ll be doing more research on these things, so watch this space!
Forecasting our labour requirements is a vital part of our planning for the growing season ahead. We start with the crop planning process (see section 3), filling out the various spreadsheets. These are normally done by January, at which point we can start to look at the number of staff hours that are likely to be required. We only ever treat this as a guide – as so many factors can change the cropping plan through the year – but it’s a very useful guide.
We start with the ‘growing schedule’ spreadsheet (LINK to attachment). Having filled in the crop information (columns A-J, see section 3), we now fill in the hours information. Most of this comes from the records we have kept in previous seasons (see ‘Record keeping & analysis’ in section 3) – e.g. the ha/hr rate of chain harrowing. We then estimate how many times we’ll need to do each job (again, based on previous years’ evidence) and what month it’ll fall in to.
We then open up the ‘target volumes & value & hours’ spreadsheet (LINK to attachment). The first page of this spreadsheet will have already been filled in during the crop planning process. For hours planning, we just work on the second page, in which there are three tables:
- estimated harvesting hours – all the cells from April to April are connected to the crop yield info on the first page. All we do now is input harvesting rates in column S, and the cells fill themselves in.
- estimated growing hours – this is more laborious. We collate and transcribe – by pen and paper – the monthly hour figures from the ‘growing schedule’ spreadsheet into this table. (There might be an easier way to do this, but we haven’t worked out how.)
- estimated non-growing hours – again, this takes a bit of time because we need to go through our records from previous years as to how much time (and in what month) we spent on different non-growing jobs. We use this previous information to estimate the year ahead
With these three tables filled in the final total estimate for monthly staff hours is added up automatically at the bottom of the page.
We then use this information for our financial forecasts (see section 2). As ever with forecasting, however, there are inherent inaccuracies and the staff hours forecast is probably a rougher guide than any other part of our forecasting. We try to strike a balance between cautious under-/over-estimation and a desire to be totally accurate, and use the results to plan ahead. Once the growing season starts, however, our staff hours planning becomes much more responsive to the day-to-day ebbs and flow of the season.
For the first couple of years since we took on the tenancy, volunteers have been a brilliant resource for us – not just giving free work-hours, but also providing ideas, answers to problems, and tonnes of goodwill and encouragement (priceless stuff!).
We’ve been very happy to benefit from free labour during our initial years, because it takes a while getting up to full (and efficient) production and, until then, we need all the help we can get. Volunteers say they have been happy to help us because of the experience of organic growing, and working in an environment with a good ethos and commitment to social and environmental principles. It also fits with our ethic of trying to get as many people onto the site to show them where food comes from and the work that goes into it. In the long-term, however, we aim to phase out our reliance on volunteers so that all hours worked are paid. This is a more important ethic to us overall. Food producers need to be able to make a living.
We’ve heard other growers talk very sceptically about volunteers (how they’re more trouble than they’re worth), and we’ve certainly learnt that it takes a fair bit of work to recruit and manage them, but it’s definitely been worth it for us.
We’ve never advertised that widely for volunteers. We’re very lucky to have an existing network of like-minded organisations in Manchester that have well-subscribed or well-read newsletters / noticeboards / email bulletins. In particular, there is a fantastic project called the Greater Manchester Land Army that organises volunteer days as and when we put the call out. We know that a lot of other organic sites use the Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network, but we haven’t gone down that road yet.
Sometimes we have only been advertising for a specific job on specific days (e.g. hedge-planting in winter), and this has been relatively easy to organise – although transporting everybody can be an issue.
At other times we have put an advert out for more general – or possibly regular – help. At these times, we’ve found that the best way to start with a new volunteer is to get them along for a day, so they can see what the work is all about, see whether it’s for them, and for us to see if they’re right for us. We make it very clear that we have to meet people and work alongside them for a day before committing to anything longer-term, and that we might not be the right workplace for them. ‘Managing expectations’ is the phrase that’s often used (and over-used), but we’ve definitely found it a sensible approach. We have had to turn a few people away, which can be tricky, but is absolutely necessary.
Overall, though, we have benefitted enormously from voluntary help. In our first three years, we have had 136 different volunteers, some coming regularly, others just once, all amounting to over 1,600 hours of work.
We have only scratched the surface of the vast range of training options out there for businesses. In some areas – e.g. IT – we feel we have the requisite skills already, other areas – e.g. management / leadership – don’t seem that pertinent as we’re already doing it by default, and other areas we are considering – e.g. personnel – but remain wary of the costs versus the specific benefits to our business. It obviously all depends on who and how many people are employed.
The areas of training we have sought out are:
(i) First Aid
The legal requirement for all businesses (no matter how small) is to “provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to ensure their employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work”. Strictly speaking we probably only need one First Aid trained worker amongst us in order to fulfil our requirements, but given the nature of our work, the machinery and equipment we use, and the distance we are from the nearest medical facilities, we think it’s more appropriate that all of us grower-directors are trained in First Aid. We all work on our own at times, and we all work with volunteers – it just seems sensible.
We have seen a few outdoor work or farming related First Aid courses around (for example, from our nearest agricultural college), but ended up receiving non-specific Emergency First Aid at Work (EFAW) training from St John Ambulance, and we will renew this every three years.
One area of paid training that we seriously considered in our first two years of learning was training in tractor work and maintenance. We were in discussions with an agricultural college, but in the end we thought it was too expensive for us.
So we have mainly learnt about tractor maintenance by following instructions in the tractor manual, which is fairly straight-forward for the more simple tasks of maintenance (e.g. changing filters, cleaning out radiators etc.). For more complex problems we have called out agricultural engineers, whilst always looking over the shoulder of what they’re doing and trying to learn more.
For most of the implements that we use, we have simply learnt ourselves on the job, trying to observe what works best. The best training we have received, however, has been from neighbouring farmers or other vegetable growers. Their experience is priceless – and has often been given for free. Training and advice from other farmers or growers has tended to be related to more complex implements (e.g. module planter, seed drill), but has also covered simple maintenance.
Other resources are the OGA Forum (where there’s always useful replies to questions), Lantra (for training) and YouTube. The machinery pages of the Farmers Guardian are sometimes useful, especially for seeing what the latest high-tech machines are capable of doing.
(iii) Growing events / visits
There’s nothing like going to visit another growing site. It gets us out of our little 21 acre bubble, and allows us to learn from another grower’s approach to the same jobs and issues we face. The range of learning is obviously very broad, and not necessarily that in-depth (unless we stay and work alongside the grower for a day or two), but it’s incredibly useful.
For more in-depth research and analysis, we really value the OGA magazine – it comes out quarterly, and always has well-researched and pertinent articles about all aspects of growing. All the back issues are available online too. We’ve also been impressed by the annual Organic Research Centre conference, where we can learn about some of the latest science and research on organic techniques.
Health & safety
We follow the requirements made by the Health and Safety Executive by:
- appointing a Health & Safety Officer
- doing annual risk assessments for each specific job on the farm
- giving appropriate training, providing appropriate equipment (including First Aid kits), and undertaking appropriate actions based on the risk assessments
- recording all accidents and reviewing these in the risk assessment process to prevent recurrence or minimise known risk factors
- having appropriate insurance
- displaying the Health & Safety Law poster and insurance certificate at our site
Here is one of our risk assessments (LINK to attachment) – n.b. there are probably lots of better template risk assessments available online. Ours is based on a template given to us by another community organisation. Overall, we find our risk assessments provide a very useful perspective on the jobs we do on the farm. Whether something is safe often seems highly related to whether it’s efficient. Another important thing we’ve found is that, in practice, it’s better to keep assessing our risks (and to keep training each other on best practice) throughout the year rather than just once a year.