It's hard for farms and agriculture businesses to find workers. Here's how they're adjusting

Alexandra Hardle
Aberdeen News
Kenny Berger, left, and James Van Aswegen work on Arthur Zoellner's farm near Groton Thursday morning.

Farmers still reeling from a wet spring also have other concerns.

In addition to the weather muddling planting and calving for many, there are parts of the agriculture industry learning to adapt to the changing job market.  

Grant Rix, who is the owner and manager of Rix Farms in Day and Brown counties, said the rainy weather has put his farm in a time crunch.

Farmers only have so long to plant crops in spring or the growing season gets too short. And northeastern South Dakota has had plenty of rainfall, slowing that process. The problem is amplified for those short on help.

Rix said there are enough people to get everything done, but his father is getting older and he’s still trying to hire one more person for a full-time gig. The farm usually has three full-time employees in addition to family members, he said. 

Two people who worked with Rix were at the farm for 20 years. Since they left four years ago, Rix said three people have worked full-time before quitting. A lot of it simply comes down to whether people want to do the work or not, he said.  

More:Wet weather forcing South Dakota farmers to delay or cut back on planting of crops

Rix Farms is in need of an agronomist or someone similar, he said. As farm manager, it’s difficult for him to be the one sitting in the corn planter, although that is his favorite part of the job, he said.

To advertise his open position, Rix said he used AgHires, a job recruiting website specifically for agriculture. Through AgHires, jobs get shared to Facebook, which has proven to be successful in terms of getting people to apply, Rix said.

Determining the right salary isn't simple

The discrepancy between farming operations and co-ops also makes it difficult to know the right salary to pay employees for skilled versus unskilled labor, he said. The emergence of co-ops has made the job market more competitive because co-ops and farming operations often look at the same pool of applicants, Rix said.

As a result, he's said he's looked at job postings by other companies to get an idea of what a competitive salary is. And that's working out out -- Rix has a handful of applicants for the job he recently posted, with a majority of people applying through Indeed. 

James Van Aswegen works on Arthur Zoellner's farm near Groton Thursday. Finding help has been a challenge for many farms and ranches across the region.

Arthur Zoellner, who owns a farm near Groton, said he has hired South African employees for the past four of five years, with some of those people going back to South Africa for several months out of the year. That's been a success, although Zoellner said some of his neighbors have considered closing down because they can't find enough help.

The hardest jobs to fill are unskilled labor positions, said Zoellner, due to the fact that they pay less.

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The South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation lists more than 500 open jobs statewide related to agriculture in some way. Truck drivers, custom applicators, equipment salespeople, farm construction laborers and many other options are on the list. Lake Area Technical College in Watertown is even looking for a precision ag instructor.

Agtegra Cooperative adjusts salaries, bonuses

Jane Kuhn, senior vice president of human resources and communication at Agtegra Cooperative, said jobs have become more competitive across all industries. Jobs in industries such as food service are now offering higher wages than they once did, she said.

Agtegra, which is headquartered in Aberdeen, will often have 60 to 80 jobs open at a time across its 70 locations. The most difficult ones to fill are operational, service-oriented positions, she said.  

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Agtegra has changed its model a bit by viewing locations as hubs of sorts. Instead of an employee working only at one location, they might have the ability to travel between nearby locations, even if that’s just for a few days. And while the cooperative used to look for people who had backgrounds working in agriculture, the recruiting model has changed, too. Now, Kuhn said, Agtegra looks for specific skills that can be transferrable between industries.

Arthur Zoellner and James Van Aswegen work on a tractor on Zoellner's farm near Groton Thursday morning.

Agtegra has also recently partnered with a recruiting agency. That agency looks for specific skills, often reaching out to people on platforms such as LinkedIn.

Kuhn said the expectations of potential workers have shifted since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with many people paying more attention to things like salary, perks and flexibility. Agtegra has adjusted to offer benefits like bonuses for tarping or loading drains, higher salaries for some jobs and more in-house growth opportunities, she said.