Tips for managing staff in a diversified farm businesses

Staff management in a busy venture can take up a huge amount of time, whether it’s recruitment, juggling rotas or making decisions on pay issues.

With 70 full- and part-time employees across their extensive mixed farm and retail business, the Simkin family knows this all too well. 

Recruitment and staff management are the most challenging areas of the business, says Will Simkin, who runs Essington Farm with his wife, Penny, and his parents, Mary and Richard.

From left: Penny, Will, Mary and Richard Simkin standing in a greenhouse

From left: Penny, Will, Mary and Richard Simkin

“From the farm staff who ensure the pigs are produced correctly, to the butcher who cuts it up, the chef who cooks it and, finally, the person who sells it to the customer, they all have to get their bit right for the customer to be happy,” he says.

For the customer to be happy, staff have to be happy too. Creating a successful business with a good reputation will help attract job applicants, he says.

Essington Farm, Wolverhampton

Run for more than 120 years by the Simkin family, Essington Farm includes a livestock enterprise, farm shop, butchery and deli, restaurant, plant nursery and pick-your-own fruit and vegetables.

Everything produced on the farm is sold direct to the consumer. The family has been retailing since it began farming here but the last 30 years or so have seen a big expansion in the offering, with a restaurant opening in 1990.

A butchery and deli were added in 2007, providing outlets for the farm’s free-range pork and Hereford beef, as well as for lamb from neighbouring farmers.

The PYO has a huge range of fruit and vegetables but now contributes a smaller proportion of turnover than in the past.

See also: More advice on diversification

Good facilities, the right equipment and fair pay in a well-run business are also important.

Essington Farm offers all staff members a 20% discount in the shop and free fruit or vegetables at times of abundance.

Labour is the second biggest cost to the business after stock purchases and accounts for 30% of turnover. Mr Simkin says benchmarking can be a useful tool when working out target labour costs.  

How to retain staff

  • Try to offer career progression/responsibility.
  • Give managers/supervisors ownership over their department. They will hopefully get job satisfaction from this.
  • Always try to expand the business, because good staff will not want to stand still. They will look elsewhere for progression.
  • Recognising achievements is good for morale and can aid loyalty.
  • Be a fair boss. Staff won’t like it if others are getting away with things they are pulled up on.
  • Offer decent facilities at work. This ranges from ensuring they have the correct, good-quality tools for the job to giving them appropriate welfare facilities.

Source: Essington Farm

“Finding the right person to work in the unique business that is farm retail has never been harder – recruitment and retention of good staff is a top priority for the business,” he says.

“Retention of staff can be difficult and when looking at part-time students, sometimes you just have to face the fact that they are only working with you while they get qualified in the career they ultimately want to be in.

“We have seen no end of good students come and go and have not been able to retain them because of this.”

Interior of the Essington farm shop

It is both a strength and a weakness that the business recruits and employs from a wide range of sectors, with all these employees having to work together to deliver the finished product to the customer.

There is currently a huge skills shortage in butchery, catering and agriculture, says Mr Simkin.

Essington butcher Andy Mcleod behind the butchery counter

Essington butcher Andy Mcleod

“We have had some success offering butchery apprenticeships and training our own butchers – something I would urge others to do when established.”

Staff management and recruitment advice

  • Recruit for attitude and train for skill.
  • Try to establish a staffing structure as soon as possible – it is important for people to know who they answer to.
  • Give each supervisor the responsibility for their team, rotas, holidays and so on.
  • Holidays will always be difficult. Lay down the rules on how many staff can be off at one time and how long they can take in each department. At Essington, this means no more than two off at any time in each department and for no longer than two weeks unless in extreme circumstances. All holidays must be approved before booking.
  • Let managers manage – resist the urge to interfere.
  • Managing managers is different to managing less-senior staff. Everyone needs to be managed differently according to personality and their job.
  • Always seek advice from an HR specialist before tackling potentially difficult issues.
  • There will always be issues with staff – don’t let it drag you down. Sometimes it is best to go with your gut feeling – if something or someone doesn’t seem right, they probably aren’t.
  • It takes time to build a team. In a good team, the members should complement each others’ strengths and weaknesses – bear this in mind when recruiting.
  • Being a good employer and offering staff something different can encourage people to work for you.
  • Always keep management accounts. These will help you keep an eye on labour costs in each department.
  • Benchmarking can be a useful tool when working out target labour costs.  

Source: Will Simkin

Insurance tips

Getting insurance policies correct, the right level of cover and good legal advice is important for all diversified businesses, says Nigel Wellings, a broker at Acres Insurance Brokers.

Get the insured occupation correct on your insurance policies, says Mr Wellings. For example, if the occupation is listed as “farmer” and multiple staff are taken on during the season to assist in outside catering, the policy must be extended to cover outside catering by notifying your insurer.

Employers’ liability cover
Employers’ liability cover for farming will not cover you for the catering unless you notify insurers of the diversification.

This type of insurance is very flexible in picking up cover for part-time, seasonal or casual staff.

Premiums for employers’ liability in the farm diversification market are based on estimated wage roll, so insurers do not need to know exact numbers of employees for the year or season, just an estimate of the gross payments to be made for direct labour, Mr Wellings explains.

The premium is then adjusted at each renewal by declaring the actual amount of gross wages paid. If wages have been more than the estimate, an additional premium is charged. If they are less than the original estimate, a return premium is allowed.

Legal cover
Good advice on employment law and preparation of employment contracts for both full-time and seasonal workers is essential, says Mr Wellings. Be aware that dealing direct with solicitors for this type of advice can be expensive.

Consider taking out management liability insurance, which gives employment law advice and representation at tribunal if required, along with other legal defence and offence cover for the farm and diversified business.

This type of cover varies widely in its quality and value for money, but cover with good legal support can be had from about £250 a year.

Avoid discrimination

It is likely that diversified businesses will recruit and employ from a wider pool of people than for farm staff, potentially leading to a greater risk of discrimination.

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal to discriminate against job applicants and employees on certain grounds, known as protected characteristics.

This includes asking applicants questions during recruitment relating to the below protected characteristics:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Age
  • Being married or in a civil partnership
  • Being pregnant or having a child
  • Disability
  • Religion (or lack of a religion)
  • Transsexuality
  • Sexual orientation