How to recruit and get the best from your harvest students

Employing a harvest student should be a rewarding experience – for the employer and the student – but many farmers report that recruitment is getting tougher, with fewer applicants coming forward.

According to agricultural colleges and universities, the problem is not because there are fewer people studying agriculture, but more that there is strong competition from a wide range of other job opportunities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also brought some new challenges for harvest 2021.

For example, some students who were hoping to apply for harvest work this summer for the first time are currently unable to. This is because they can’t guarantee they will get their driving or tractor licence in time, with tests suspended during lockdown.

See also: How to get the best from your vet student at lambing

So how can you increase your chances of recruiting a good student and how can you ensure the student gets the most from the experience?

We asked some farm employers and those working in further and higher education for their thoughts.

Our panel

Chris Baylis Director of farming at Sir Richard Sutton Estates and 2017 Farmers Weekly Farm Manager of the Year, who recruits up to eight harvest students a year – six for the farm in Lincolnshire and another two for the farm in Berkshire.

Andrew Robinson 2019 FW Farmer of the Year and farm manager at Heathcote Farms in Bedfordshire, who recruits three harvest students each year to work from July to the end of September.

Mike Shapland Farms manager at James Foskett Farms and 2018 FW Farm Manager of the Year, who employs about 100 seasonal workers each year to pick vegetables, and has in the past employed students on year-long placements.

Phil Gibbon Agriculture department employer co-ordinator at Reaseheath College in Cheshire.

Terry Pickthall Agricultural placements manager, and Maria Simpson, careers service manager, from Harper Adams University.

Phil Cookson A partner and employment law specialist with Roythornes solicitors.

Recruitment: How and when?

  • If you need to recruit, start your search early. The best time to advertise harvest positions is January/February.
  • Most agricultural colleges will advertise jobs to students, but be prepared that demand for workers tends to outstrip supply, particularly where high technical skills and professional certifications (for example, a telehandler certificate) are required. So you may also need to advertise using social media or seek recommendations from previous students.
  • Remember, employers are competing for attention with international job roles (in non-Covid-19 times). Students will often look for suitable harvest positions that also allow them to travel to Australia/New Zealand or North America. That said, some employers have found Irish students are keen to work on UK farms, so it can work both ways.
  • Job adverts should be clear and include a bit of information to help the business stand out. This includes details of the farm, as well as the role and the machinery people will be operating. Consider how to promote your farm’s unique brand and what the student is set to gain from the harvest experience.
  • If advertising on social media, including pictures will help your post stand out from the crowd.

What are students looking for?

  • Given good students can pretty much pick and choose between farms, their expectations of what you should offer are getting higher.
  • For harvest work, they will be looking for the chance to earn a good wage and get plenty of hours, but not at the expense of good terms and conditions and a decent place to live (and don’t overlook the importance of good wi-fi).
  • A friendly and welcoming team they feel they can fit into and work well with is also likely to be high on their priorities list.
  • Good students with the right skills will look for learning opportunities and a role that adds to their CV by developing their experience. They may be seeking a chance to take on some responsibility and try tasks they have not previously done.
  • Location can play a part, with some applicants not wanting to be isolated from friends and family, so they can get home over the harvest period on their days off.
  • The health and safety standards of the harvest placement will also be important, as parents will be concerned about where their son or daughter is working over the summer.
  • New or different practices or crops are likely to make a job stand out, as does the opportunity to use precision-farming technology.

Handling the interview process

  • Covid-19 restrictions may make it impossible to interview in person, but take the time to arrange an online interview instead. You’ll get much more of a sense of the person you are talking to on a video call than you can over the telephone.
  • Get them to detail their past experience, so you know what they can do, and ask what they would like to get out of the placement.
  • Ask for at least two references and make sure you follow them up before offering the job.

How best to induct students into the team

  • A proper induction by someone in authority is essential – it’s unfair and unsafe to just drop people in at the deep end and expect them to know what they should be doing.
  • Physically check that they can do what they have told you they can do during their interview. For example, check they can operate your make of tractor and are competent in operating the kit they are expected to use.
  • Introduce everyone to all full-time members of staff by holding a social event like a barbecue or by involving permanent staff in the more formal induction process. You’ll get more from students if they feel valued and part of the team, rather than temporary additions.
  • A critical part of the induction should be about health and safety, where you introduce them to your safe working policies and make it clear they are required to respect them. This should include a farm tour pointing out high-risk areas, risk assessments for different machines, guidance on working at height or how to stay safe when harvesting or cultivating across slopes.
  • Make sure everyone is aware who their points of contact are if something goes wrong.
  • Encourage a culture of openness and good communication. Mistakes happen sometimes, but it’s how people deal with them that is important. Make it clear that if someone makes a mistake or something gets broken, they must tell someone immediately and find ways to share the learning.

Keeping morale high

  • Treat students how you would like a member of your own family to be treated if they were working away from home.
  • If students do not have their own cars, arrange to pick them up – for example, from a station – and ensure they have access to transport to get to the supermarket once a week.
  • Remember small gestures can mean a lot. Fish and chips in the field on a Friday night and the occasional bacon butty will help to motivate people and can help to foster team spirit.
  • Good employers will also often provide meals at weekends when working, or arrange to supply an evening meal three times a week.
  • Encourage people to take tea breaks or lunch breaks together if possible.
  • Provide high-quality accommodation. Some employers arrange for a cleaner once a week.
  • Encourage questions and try to keep people in the loop on your decision-making. Listen to their ideas – you might learn from them and it makes life nicer for everyone if they know what they are doing and why.
  • Arrange regular catch-ups to ask for feedback and to share your own. Invite harvest workers to join any wider team meetings.
  • If you look after your students when they are with you and give them a learning experience, they are more likely to want to return the following year, saving you the headache of finding new applicants.

Any legal issues to consider?

  • All new employees now have the right to a statement of written particulars from their very first day of employment (previously employers had two months to provide this). The statement should include terms relating to normal hours of work, duration and conditions of probation, eligibility for sick leave/pay, and details of non-pay benefits.
  • Don’t forget your Working Time Regulations 1998 opt-out for those who will be working an average of more than 48 hours a week over a 17-week period. Only workers aged 18 or older can opt out