Tips to attract and retain staff in a tough market

Immigration policy changes, war in Ukraine and farming’s poor public image, have combined to make recruiting and retaining staff tougher than ever, according to labour management experts.

Research fellow Dr Caroline Nye of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) and Tess Howe, head of partnerships at The Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture (Tiah), offer advice on recruiting and retaining staff in a challenging labour market.

See also: How to stress-test your farm business against high inflation

The staffing challenge

Headline figures from a survey carried out by Tiah and the CRPR in 2022-23 show the extent of the challenges.

Almost half of the farms surveyed had seen staff quit during the previous 12 months. The most common reason for leaving was a return to Europe in the wake of Brexit.

Departures were either voluntary or because workers were forced to leave due to the new immigration laws.

Of others that left, 22% changed to a different occupation and 15% made a career move within farming.

One-fifth of staff leaving the sector altogether is a big number and a concern, says Caroline.

More than one-third (37%) were concerned about losing staff and not being able to fill the vacancy, while one-quarter of farm managers already had vacancies at the time the survey was carried out.

The 25% figure was broken down into 19% with one or two vacancies, and 6% with three or more posts unfilled.

Almost two-thirds (63%) of respondents reported facing difficulties in recruiting, while 39% had vacancies left unfilled for more than one month.

Report highlights

  • 25% of farms were looking for staff
  • 63% faced difficulties when filling posts
  • 39% had a vacancy left unfilled for one month or more
  • Almost half had seen staff leave
  • 22% moved to a different occupation and 15% made a career move within farming
  • 37% were not confident they would find and retain staff over the next year

Tess explains that although Brexit has been a significant factor, the labour shortage has wider influences.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine saw a hugely important labour supply dry up, while in the UK, unemployment remains at a long-term low, adding further constraints.

It means job seekers can be choosier over conditions and hours, and farming has a poor reputation for both.

Agricultural employers are, therefore, left facing competition for the best workers and moves between farms have risen to account for 15% of staff resignations.

Every time a member of staff leaves, it costs an equivalent of 18 months’ worth of the worker’s salary, Tess adds.

That calculation is made up of covering the vacancy temporarily, the cost of recruiting and lost earnings as other staff take time to train the new recruit and production drop-offs as they come up to speed.

The difficult and costly labour position in agriculture is undermining business resilience, so planning the recruitment drive carefully and creating the best working environment to attract and retain the right staff is vitally important.

Creating a positive work environment

Team spirit

A sense of being part of a supportive team that achieves good production figures is extremely important in retaining staff.

Relatively simple steps can help demonstrate that individuals are valued members and key components of the team.

Whole-team briefings and discussions will create an atmosphere of a working unit with shared targets.

It is also a chance to let people know exactly what they are doing and to share knowledge and advice on how to complete jobs.

Tasks should be divvied up to provide a varied role and ensure the more interesting jobs are shared out.

While this joined-up approach is important, equally vital is ensuring time is spent with individuals.

Any underlying insecurities that come to light should be addressed quickly to nip in the bud possible areas that might lead to ill-feeling or stress, which can quickly spread and undermine team spirit.  


Businesses that retain staff are most likely to be those with a clear career path for individuals.

Training is key, because it boosts staff confidence and provides a sense of achievement. Helping staff get ready for the next step up the responsibility ladder can also mean the business is in a stronger position should anyone leave.

Having a well-trained, capable team frees up time for the overall manager to develop targets and strategies, too, leading to a progressive business environment, says Tess.

One-to-one appraisals where carefully tailored targets can be set are central to this.

Targets must be achievable and agreed with the individual, she says.

Unrealistic targets will lead to extra pressure on the worker and ill-feeling that can spread throughout the team.

Work hours

Because farming is increasingly competing on the wider stage of employee recruitment, it must address the historic long-hours culture.

Providing a package, then, with holidays and allotted downtime is key in enhancing the farm’s reputation.

However, tight weather windows and livestock needs present difficulties in reducing work hours.

One possibility is to look at creating shift patterns and job shares that allow staff to have two consecutive days off each week, or even work part-time, suggests Caroline.

It may also be worth looking at jobs that could be done by a contractor at a more economic rate than paying overtime.

In particular, this could be for menial tasks that are a waste of a skilled worker’s or manager’s time.

Working conditions

The general working conditions of the farm and equipment also matter, says Tess.

Machinery breakdowns can waste time, causing  frustration and time pressures, adding to disgruntlement.

It doesn’t mean machinery has to be brand new to keep staff happy but a good standard of equipment that is well-maintained and relatively up to date will make tasks easier, faster and safer.

Extending that policy to other areas will add to the sense of pride in the workplace.

Warm, dry, modern communal areas like meeting rooms and offices, along with clean washing and toilet facilities, are surprisingly important in maintaining staff morale, Tess points out.


Aside from the importance of meeting regulations, promoting a positive attitude towards health, safety and mental wellbeing will add to a sense that the team is valued, says Tess.

If staff suspect working conditions fall short on regulations they will rightly question whether their employer values them.

Health and safety briefings should be part of morning meetings so everybody is aware of how to operate safely.

Mental ill-health is increasingly better understood, but spotting the symptoms remains notoriously difficult.

Communicating, especially listening, will help to identify and address issues quickly and sensitively.

Training on this area is available free to employers. Ensuring signposting in meeting rooms and on noticeboards with contact details of support bodies is one useful step. Supporting the team to destigmatise mental ill-health is another. 



Managers need to take a planned approach to recruitment.

“We need to ask ‘who is the person we want in the role and where will they be looking’,” Tess says.

Writing job descriptions that appeal to candidates takes time and skill. Free training for this and the rest of the recruiting process is invaluable and available free of charge, she adds.

But too many farmers still rely on local recruitment. Almost one in 10 are still using word of mouth as their main recruitment drive, Caroline suggests.

It means a swathe of candidates is overlooked. Casting the net wider can open up new pools of potential employees, such as skilled machinery operators, animal healthcare workers, environmental and technology specialists and individuals with key personnel skills.

One of the best ways to access these areas is through social media.

Staff selection

Recruiting the wrong person can have a long-term effect.

This may be directly through damaging equipment and technology or from poor animal husbandry, suggests Caroline.

Or it may be indirectly through a character mismatch which disrupts other staff, causing bad feeling, inefficiencies and undermining the business’ reputation.

Estimates suggest that the cost of “one bad apple” can amount to £50,000 in addition to the cost of recruitment itself.

Looking beyond the CV is key. Does the candidate have the right character to fit in, are they enthusiastic, do they have an aptitude for the work, will they be a team player and operate flexibly? 

Finding out what the candidate is expecting and wants from the role can provide further valuable insight. The interview is a two-way process, so asking for their views may show up inexperience or unrealistic expectations, Tess says.

Case study: Transition Farmer Eddie Andrew, Cliffe House Farm, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

Eddie Andrew uses a range of avenues to look for staff, including job sites, colleges, agencies and local networks.

“We are not having any luck with colleges at the moment,” he reports.

“We keep looking at agencies, but are not sure if the high cost is worth it. Some guarantee money back if the staff leave before a certain period of time, which provides peace of mind.”

However, Eddie’s preferred option is a national recruitment website.

“I usually use the Indeed job site as it can filter possible staff to some degree by your criteria,” he says.

One of Eddie’s important criteria is to look at how long a prospective employer has spent with their previous employer. “Someone who jumps ship a lot isn’t who we want,” he says.

Another suggestion would be to ask how much notice they need to give their current employer before starting the new job with you, he adds.

“It gives a good insight into folks’ characters if they stick to their contract and work their full notice period.”

Eddie says they have also found merit in recruiting staff at a younger age and training them.

“Our dairy manager has been with us since he was 18,” he adds.

“We are looking for a full-time member of staff right now and the job includes on-site accommodation – if you know of anyone wanting a job in Sheffield,” he adds.

Explore more / Transition

This article forms part of Farmers Weekly’s Transition series, which looks at how farmers can make their businesses more financially and environmentally sustainable.

During the series we follow our group of 16 Transition Farmers through the challenges and opportunities as they seek to improve their farm businesses.

Transition is an independent editorial initiative supported by our UK-wide network of partners, who have made it possible to bring you this series.

Visit the Transition content hub to find out more.