How does the agriculture sector manage HR?

Posted on Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

Written by Susan Bubak

Sara Mann

Sara Mann

This research is from Sara Mann, Associate Professor, Leadership & Organizational Management.


Human resources play an important role in any business, from attracting and hiring new employees to paying and retaining them. But some sectors, such as agriculture, may not see the value in investing in HR. Sara Mann, a professor of leadership and strategic human resource management in the Department of Management, is trying to change that. Her research on HR practices in the agriculture sector is looking at how HR can be improved in this field.

“In rural areas, the biggest HR issue that organizations face is that it’s difficult to find and attract workers because of a much tighter labour market, and jobs that are not perceived as desirable,” says Mann. In addition, finding skilled workers in sparsely populated areas can be challenging due to the lack of access to post-secondary education and transportation. “Those two challenges combined create a lack of employees with the right skills, so it’s harder for employers to attract and retain workers,” she says.

One of Mann’s biggest research projects is looking at employment issues in collaboration with Workforce Planning Boards. The project involves analyzing three years of data from surveys of 2,000 employers. The surveys asked employment-related questions and linked the results with data from Statistics Canada to determine the relationship between certain types of HR practices, the unemployment rate and the ability of rural employers to attract workers.

Mann’s research team also helped develop a training program for supervisors and managers in the agriculture sector with a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. More than 150 farmers participated in the training program, which aimed to develop their supervisory and management skills.

“That was a pretty exciting initiative because enticing farmers to attend training and see value in HR training can be a real challenge, so we were pretty happy with the number of participants,” says Mann. “Dealing with HR isn’t something that farmers want to waste their time on.” The program focused on teaching farmers the basics of hiring, developing interview questions, writing job descriptions and conducting performance evaluations.

“We trained the participants on attracting, selecting and retaining workers, and received really strong feedback from the participants that it actually made a difference,” says Mann.

The agriculture sector also faces labour shortages for both skilled and unskilled workers, but the Temporary Foreign Worker Program helps meet the demand for seasonal agricultural labourers.

The increase in the minimum wage from $11.40 to $14, starting January 1, 2018, will have a significant impact on the agriculture sector, says Mann. “It’s a big concern for employers who use the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program,” she explains. “The proposed increases will have devastating consequences for the agricultural sector. I would speculate that you’re going to see farms that are not able to afford the increase in the minimum wage and subsequently have to close down because they’ll be out of business,” she says. “There’s just not enough of a profit margin in this sector to handle this type of increase.”

Living on a farm gives Mann first-hand experience with the challenges farmers face in managing the business-side of their operations. Farmers often perceive HR as less important than their other responsibilities, such as tending to their crops and livestock.

Mann encourages farmers “to realize the value of spending time on HR. It’s a very hard thing to show the return on investment because there are so many other confounding variables. From a legal standpoint, but also from a motivational standpoint, spending time and money on attracting, selecting and retaining your employees will be worth your while in the long run.”

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