Research in Progress: Unpacking the Farm Labor Puzzle

Our Guest Blogger this week is Mary Peabody. Mary works for University of Vermont Extension. She reports on an team effort to examine the best practices of farmers in terms of effective labor management.  This work matches the Power of Business effort rural small business owners are encouraged to network with other business owners to help answer questions. This post is used with permission. It was originally posted on OOct 9th, 2015 at: 

Farm workerOctober 2015.  One of the strategies new farmers often use to learn their craft is to observe and talk with other farmers that appear to be having success in similar operations. In fact, farmer-to-farmer learning has a very high preference score in nearly every aspect of farmer training

In this research project, we are using the same principle to identify labor management practices. By interviewing experienced farmers who also appear to be effective labor managers we are learning about the process of recruiting, hiring, training and retaining the right employees.

Throughout the summer and fall our research team has been conducting interviews with farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. As we collect their stories about what works and what doesn’t we’ll be looking for themes to emerge and building our next research phase from these findings.

In the meantime, no reason not to share a few of the pearls that have emerged from these interviews. So, a few keys to successful farm labor management from the experts in the field:

  • Be clear in your own mind about your business goals before you begin hiring.
  • Detailed job descriptions are critical. It sounds so obvious but an accurate, detailed job description is no simple matter.
  • Have prospective workers visit the farm so that you can meet with them face-to-face and observe them in your farm setting.
  • Do not expect farm workers to learn every aspect of the business right away. Manage the training so that the employee has time to master one activity before taking on something new.

Stay tuned for more updates on this exciting project. And if you are a farmer that has successfully Female farm workernavigated the farm labor maze and you’d like to share your tips and strategies with us please contact us — we’d love to talk with you!

Thanks to all the farmers who gave us their time so generously in the heat of the growing season. You Rock!!

If you’d like to participate in this research project please email

[In March 2014 UVM Extension, with several UVM research faculty and colleagues from University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Wisconsin was awarded a 3-year integrated research and extension grant to look at labor management practices on small and medium-sized farms. The goal of this project is to identify clusters of labor management practices that “successful” farmers are using and develop decision tools that make these tools more available to other farms.]

The research team:

  • Mary Peabody, UVM Extension
  • Jason Parker, UVM Plant and Soil Science
  • Kathleen Liang, UVM Community Development and Applied Economics
  • Seth Wilner, UNH Cooperative Extension
  • Carolyn Sachs, Pennsylvania State University
  • John Hendrickson, University of Wisconsin Extension
  • Beth Holtzman, UVM Extension
  • Monica Petrella, UVM Graduate Student

NIFA AFRI Award #2014-68006-21873

Food Safety at Farmers’ Markets

Farmers' Market

Photo by USDA

Food safety is on the radar screen for today’s consumer. The popular press regularly brings stories about issues of potential concern.

As a local food producer, farmers and other value-added entities are very aware of the need to provide a safe food product. One of the marketing points that many of you use relates to the idea of knowing your local producer and how that influences the feelings of food safety.

So how can you best ensure that the food you are providing continues to be safe for your customers? It isn’t extremely hard. It just requires understanding your production and distribution processes and then looking for where potential gaps occur where food safety issues might arise.

To help you with that Iowa State has put a free course online to help you evaluate your current systems and to put new tasks in place that will minimize the holes you find. The University of Missouri Extension system brought my attention to this great tool. I hope you find is useful.

Throw a Twitter Party, Have Fun and Grow Your Business!

Yes, it is possible to grow your business while having fun.  One way to do it? Throw a Twitter Party!

A Twitter Party creates an experience to engage your clients and prospective customers. Twitter Parties can build your online presence, market your enterprise and expand your brand.

Use Twitter Parties to connect with your audience, discuss timely topics and present information about your products and services

Join Alyssa Dye, Nebraska Extension Intern and entrepreneur, as she discusses setting up a Twitter Party while providing strategies designed to make your Twitter Party a success!

To learn more about Alyssa, go to

Register for the Twitter Party event at:

Missed previous events?
Check out the Power of Business YouTube channel
or the “Friday 15 tab at Power of Business.

While you are on the site, sign up to receive reminders for monthly chats and a newsletter designed to grow your business!

“See you” on later today at 11:15 AM CT!


Saying “No” as a Small Business Owner


Photo (CC), on Flickr

Over the holiday break, I enjoyed spending time with my 18-month old grandson. He is at that stage where the word “no” is a significant part of his vocabulary. He says it often and sometimes loudly.

As we grow older we tend to say “no” less often. I don’t know if it is because of our upbringing or if we are just trying to keep everyone pleased, but saying no feels like something we just shouldn’t do. It seems to be a word to be saved for only the most dire emergencies.

As a business owner, you need to break that mold. Saying no should be one of the management tools you carry and use on a regular basis. This was recently pointed out in an article shared by Becky McCray on her blog, Small Biz Survival. This blog post was building on an earlier work by Stephanie Ward of Firefly Coaching.

Stephanie several reasons why we just can’t say no: we want to be liked; we feel guilty; or we don’t know how to say it in a way that makes it an acceptable response. So instead we say yes and quickly become angry or feel overwhelmed.

There are other times we need to say no as a business owner. One such time may be when you are being asked over and over for donations. Suzette Barta of Oklahoma has put together an excellent piece on “How to Survive When You’re Being Hundred-Dollared to Death” (look for CR-961).

Here are more helpful articles:

No – It is one of the shortest words we have. Yet it carries so much weight. We fear that using it will shut doors forever.

The reality is it can be used effectively and without any harm to your business. As we move into a new year, make it part of your business management strategy.

Learning By Observing

Observation telescope

Photo (CC) Ralph Hockens, on Flickr

Recently took a trip with my wife through part of the southwestern United States. I enjoy traveling and seeing the unique sites we have all across the country.

And while my wife and I have taken trips over the years and during lots of those years my role has been to help small business owners, this was the first time that I took notes on what I saw small businesses doing that, in my estimation, helped their or hurt their business. I thought I would just share some of my observations.

However before offering my thoughts, I would encourage any and all business owners to do the same thing. There is so much we can learn just from observation.

And it need not be just our observations but ask friends, colleagues, and customers what have seen that could be used in your small business. People like to talk about their travels, be they a vacation or a simple trip to the local store. They like to be asked and they like to share. Form categories of how the comments fit together.

When you have a critical mass of observations in an area, decide what it means to your business and take action. Sometimes it may just one item that sparks an idea. Other times it may be months or even years before a group of comments gel into a plan. There is no timeline.

The important fact is you are listening, following trends, and positioning your business. And you are engaging your customers at the same time.

So here goes – my observations:

  • It’s an online world. This is nothing new but to see people expecting to have online service while deep into a national park just reminded me of how we expect to be attached anywhere and everywhere.
  • Speaking of online, communities can help their small business segment. In two instances, there was free WiFi in the downtown. How handy.
  • Related to the online world is the fact that WiFi service needs to be good, especially at hotels where we depend on catching up on whatever it was we missed during the day. The same goes for restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream parlors, or any other hospitality business.
  • Having your business online is a requirement. We stopped at a small restaurant completely by chance. The food was good but they didn’t have a web presence.  How many people walked right on by because they couldn’t read the reviews? Throughout the trip we used online maps and reviews to find hotels, lodging, stores and even gas station.
  • And speaking of reviews, don’t hesitate to ask your guests to post a review. A couple of the hotels sent me an email to fill out their survey when we got home. Yet, and this is just my personal bias, I prefer the third-party sites where I can see lots of reviews all at the same time. So ask and direct me to your preferred third-party site (but don’t be surprised to know that each of us have our favorites and will probably use that one instead).
  • There is lots of competition for my dollar. And business owners are using every marketing angle they can think of to make sure I know they are there. No surprise here.
  • I have mentioned a lot about online searching but we also used telephone books, brochures, and visitor guides. One community had put menus from many of the restaurants in a community guide. Saved me from having to look them up and they included a map so I knew right where to do.
  • Visual appeal. Don’t overlook it. Little things make a difference. It influenced what stores I stopped at as I walked down the street. A couple of times I went across the street and looked at the block I had just walked and asked why I stopped where I did. Mostly it was the visual merchandising.
  • And I will end with staffing. We saw too many, not enough, those who couldn’t answer questions and those who could, those who were helpful, and those who truly understood the important link they played in being a host in their community/region.

This isn’t my entire list but you get the sense of the power of observation. I suspect many of you might take the same trip and have a completely different list. That’s why you take

Hope this triggers some thoughts and encourages you to keep your senses open for opportunities.

Measure Your Performance


Photo (CC) by Simon Cunningham, on Flickr

It’s hard to know if you are moving forward if you don’t stop and check on a regular basis to see if any progress has been made.

That is why every marketing effort you undertake should have some form of evaluation – are you getting the return you want. It takes time and money to market so why would you be spending these limited resources on efforts that don’t help your business.

Now there are some marketing efforts that have long term payoffs or are meant to build goodwill and/or your brand. Admittedly, payoff for those efforts is hard to measure and it takes a long time before any return is realized. Yet certainly you can develop certain short-term measures that give you an idea if you are headed in the right direction.

In the world of social media, Google Analytics offers a powerful evaluation tool.  Our friend at Small Food Business, looked at this tool.  Their blog post offers a nice introduction to the tool and what it can do. You can find it at: harnessing-the-power-of-google-analytics/ .

Every marketing effort you undertake needs to have goals and a plan on how you, the business owner, will reach those goals. Return on investment, or ROI, is crucial. Make sure you are getting the most out of each effort.

Marketing is More Than Sales

Grand Opening by BJMcCray on Flickr

Grand Opening by BJMcCray on Flickr

You have opened the door to your new business.  What a great day.

Of course as a small business owner, you have lots of things yet to do but the shelves are stocked, everything is gleaming, and you even remembered to get change for the cash drawer (Yes, some people still use real money to make transactions. I rarely fit into that category but I have heard stories).

Some time passes and someone walks into your business. It’s the business owner from next door and she just wants to wish you good luck.

Some more time passes and some friends and neighbors have also dropped by.  Some of them actually bought something but you don’t really count that as a sale. No, they were just being polite.

Some more time passes and a stranger walks in, looks around some and leaves.

Some more time passes and a group of people walk in. They look around and then begin to ask questions about one of your products. They ask about a discount if they buy several of the same item. As they make the offer, you are mentally wondering just how to respond. You tell them you will get back to them on their offer.

Some more time passes. Another person comes in. He comments he didn’t know that your store was even here. He is from out of town. He had researched his opportunities, didn’t see what he wanted but had another reason to come over to your town and just happened to see your temporary sign.  You have several items he wants and makes a purchase. YOUR FIRST SALE! You feel like your business is officially open.

The day continues. Sales are slow. At the end of the day, you look at what you sold and get a little discouraged. This isn’t what you expected.

While a fictitious story, it fits the experience shared with me by several owners.

What happened? As you consider the results, the common theme seems to be following the myth, “build it and they will come.” Marketing is much bigger than sales. Marketing must happen early, be ongoing, and use a variety of tools.

So what marketing should have happened?

1. Marketing starts well before the doors are even open. It includes understanding who the customer is and what they want.

2. Marketing also means getting the word out. In the above scenario, nothing was mentioned about pre-opening publicity. Nor was there mention of a ribbon-cutting (free PR + creating awareness among other business owners). And while the inside of the store looked good, the outside had a temporary sign only plus there is no mention of inside signage that can answer questions and even increase sales.

3. Nothing was mentioned about traditional marketing that may have been done. There also could have been pre-opening networking to develop community awareness.

4. Also there was no mention about online marketing. It is important to claim your bubble on the various services such as Google, Yelp, Yahoo, and others. Also you need some web presence of your own – a website or a blog. This must something you own. The phonebook still has a place but remember that it may be nearly two years before your listing ever makes it into print. Online it can happen nearly instantly.

5. And there are so many other parts of marketing. Just a partial list would include pricing, packaging, store location, social media efforts, image, visual efforts, etc. The list goes on and on. Remember also that marketing is not a one-and-done effort. It must be consistent, build on a regular theme, and help develop your brand.

So while sales are the lifeblood of a business, marketing is the heart that keeps things flowing.

Bottom line – The day you think of a business idea is the day you start your marketing efforts.