What to do with a difficult farm season review

This week’s farm essay is a reflection on an email I received from a farmer about their Season Review.

“On my farm, we’re a 7 person team: 5 workers, my wife and me. I’ve been doing season reviews for the last 2 years. Both as individual and in group meetings (I haven’t tried a survey yet). What I find hard with group meetings is that they tend to focus on ideal wishes and not specifically on what is good for the business.

So the common reports I have are: “I like the moments when I can spend time chatting with other members of the crew” (in other words, when the work is low pressure). “Days are long” or the “job is hard”, “I would like to have more money”, “Could we have some hot drinks in winter or cold water in summer”, “I don’t like weeding” ,….

I have the feeling that these questions are like an open door for them to dream aloud. And I don’t have the possibility to make these dreams come true, mainly because it’s such hard work moneywise. And also because what a labourer considers good is not especially what’s good for a team.

Do you have those kinds of situations also? How do you deal with them?”

These are definitely thoughts that have come out of season reviews with the team.

Here are a few of my reflections …

Wouldn’t you rather know?

It can be easy to feel guilty hearing these answers but folks are thinking these thoughts whether they say them out loud or not. 

Wouldn’t you rather know what your crew is experiencing?

The alternative is to assume you know what folks are thinking. Speculating on your crew’s unvoiced complaints and motivation can lead you to feeling even more frustrated and powerless. 

Once things are out in the open, you know what you’re working with.

Listening to your crew also lets them feel heard and respected. This is important as improving their work experience.

This is just one data point

Your review is only one way you can evaluate how your team is doing. 

Another important data point is your employee retention.

Do folks come back for more than one season?

If they do, you’re doing something right. Make sure to consider this when you’re listening to critical comments during your review.

If folks never stay for multiple seasons, or if they quit during the growing season – this is probably a sign that there are key things you need to improve. These critical comments are even more important to pay attention to.

Is there anything you can actually do on the list?

When you’re faced with a bunch of tough requests, It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless to solve them.

But not all requests are as difficult to fulfill.

Go through your lists and evaluate them one by one – what are the easiest to do something about.

There are two items that catch my attention in your list 

  • I like the moments when I can spend time chatting with other members of the crew
  • Could we have some hot drinks in winter or cold water in summer

These sound like good starting points.

Do you have a coffee break on your farm? What if you schedule a 10 minute break mid morning. And have a couple thermoses of coffee on hand – or tea, or whatever seasonal beverage folks like. Take a moment to stop what you’re doing, chat, relax and refresh.

You can set a rotating schedule of who prepares the drinks before you head out to the field.

A morning break not only gives a moment to chat and relax, but it also creates a goal to aim for when you’re working – can you get those last 50 bunches down in 10 minutes so you can get to break?

A break also gives a clear moment when you’re all together and you can set the next priority for the morning.

Small things like this don’t have to cost a lot financially but they do wonders for crew morale.

Create room for celebration

It can be pretty easy to remember the hard things and complaints about a season.

So you need to also clearly ask what was great about the season. And make sure to spend time with that list as a team and alter on when you’re reviewing your reviews.

And it’s important to do this when you’re all together. When your crew hears some of those successes and great times, it will trigger them to remember some of their own.

This is as important as highlighting the rough stuff.

Bring it back to production (or wherever you need it to go)

Employee celebrations and challenges are definitely important parts of your season review.

But make sure that you go beyond these topics and get into the nuts and bolts of the farming and the marketing and drawing on their experience.

This is why I really like to share a survey beforehand with clear questions. Being able to parse through your team’s thoughts in advance can let you clearly see patterns. It also gives folks a place to express themselves. And it lets you see what are the biggest things that need discussion in person.

You should also share everyone’s answers with the whole team. This is great for transparency but it will also let your team notice things that you hadn’t noticed.

Expect Unfinished Business

The last time I went to the Maine Farmer to Farmer conference, there were guidelines posted before every presentation – one of the items listed was “Expect Unfinished Business”.

I love this advice.

The goal of a review or reflection is not to solve everything.

It’s about bringing things into the light and giving them your attention and consciousness for a moment And getting that thinking ball rolling.

Once you’ve highlighted challenges and started to flesh them, your mind can keep working on them beyond this review period. You can schedule other times to work on them. But even without doing that, you’ll probably find yourself pondering these challenges in the shower, on walks, as you’re sweeping the floor, doing animal chores … at periods where your mind can simply wander.

And then you suddenly get an Aha moment.

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