Running a multi-site dairy operation with over 3,600 head of cows and youngstock to care for, the last thing Manitowoc County farmer Brian Staudinger has time for is recruiting dependable employees.
"Our biggest challenge is finding qualified new applicants that aren't someone else's previous problem," said Staudinger, owner of Blue Royal Dairy.
Because time is a precious commodity with good employees worth their weight in gold, Staudinger reached out to AgriStaff USA, an employee consulting agency in Kiel that specializes in helping clients in the agriculture industry find qualified workers.
The company was co-founded in 2014 by partners Frankie Rodriguez and Becky Schmid. Rodriguez who relocated to Wisconsin from New York serves as placement specialist for the firm while Wisconsin native Schmid is operations manager.
"(Our association) with AgriStaff USA allows our focus to be on what we do best which is manage cattle and production and allows Frankie to weed through the sometimes jumbled mess of applicants that may or may not be serious about seeking employment," Staudinger said. "The fact that someone else other than myself or a manager is doing the legwork which, in turn, is a time savings to both the employer and employee."
From the ground up
Working at a start-up staffing agency in New York City, Rodriguez learned about running an employment agency from the ground up and developed a passion for the business.
"When I moved to Wisconsin, I was trying to figure out where I fit in," Rodriguez said.
Being of Hispanic descent, Rodriguez knew he would have an advantage not only with communicating between employers and employees, but also understanding cultural differences and their potential impact on the work site.
"So I decided to put my experience to work and create AgriStaff USA," Rodriguez said.
Schmid said the decision to focus on the dairy industry was born from the workforce staffing dilemma faced by many area farms. The most common complaint they heard from local businesses was lack of a workforce — especially in the ag sector.
"Employees just don't stop by like they used to. Many local farmers didn't have anyone to turn to for help in finding employees besides their network of other farmers and professionals," Schmid said. "(Nowadays) it takes more creative ways and networking to find qualified people."
As regulations have gotten stricter, Rodriguez says it's important for employers to make sure they're getting quality people on staff.
"Our dairy clients especially just can't spend their days interviewing candidates for them to 'not check out' or only stay on for a day or two," he said.
Schmid says her company's services are tailored to the client's needs. AgriStaff USA meets with clients to talk about their operation, to discuss the type of employee they are looking for and the tasks required of that person.
Ads are soon placed and networking begins with perspective candidates being carefully screened before they are sent to the employer for an interview.
Peter Muth of Cedar Lawn Farm near West Bend says his greatest challenge in finding employees to work on his family-owned operation was finding quality workers with skills, a strong work ethic and an attitude that matched that of the family's farm culture.
"All of the candidates (that AgriStaff sent to us) had experience which allowed for a shorter training period, and each of them knew what the expectations were before they arrived on the farm," Muth said. "We also learned more about each candidate before they arrived."
Once Schmid and Rodriguez started placing employees they realized their clients needed more than just a steady stream of dependable workers. They soon expanded their services to offer support with on-boarding and helping clients to clear any employer-employee hurdles that arose.
"The number one problem our clients face is the communication barrier. There is a very large number of Spanish-speaking farm workers that speak very little — if any — English," Rodriguez said. "If you can't communicate — good or bad — nothing can be achieved."
Nic Schoenberger farms with his brother-in-law, Mike Schuler, on Greendale Dairy (an operation that has been in the family for more than 150 years) and milks 650 cows three times a day with the help of 14 full time and part time employees — nine of which are Hispanic.
"We found that not only is it difficult to explain job descriptions and daily tasks, there are also personal issues that come up from time to time that we were not always addressing in a timely manner," Schuler said. "That made us realize that we needed help from someone that offered more than just translating."
Since their farm isn't large enough to retain a full time staff member to handle job training and other issues that come up, Greendale Dairy reached out to AgriStaff USA.
As part of the company's membership service, Rodriguez visits the client's farm on a monthly basis to conduct an employee meeting where employer-employee needs are discussed.
"Sometimes a simple miscommunication can turn into a huge ordeal. If we can deal with a situation or problem right away, it makes it that much easier to move past," Schmid said.
Rodriguez says it is important to see the entire picture when dealing with a workforce issue on the farm.
"We will come in and start talking with the employer and manager and the workers to open communication lines," Rodriguez said. "We talk with each employee to get their view of the situation so we have a well-rounded view. We can then make an assessment and talk with the managers about the situation."
Rodriguez said that some clients prefer a third-party to take on the role of communicating between the management and employees.
"We can give an unbiased opinion and both sides feel like they can talk to us," Rodriguez said. "Our goal is to be fair and represent both parties to the best of our ability."
By allowing Rodriguez to mediate any issues, Schuler says they can focus on farming.
"This gives us better control of our day operations and a good feeling that we are holding our employees more accountable as well as addressing their concerns," Schuler said.
A step further
With many national organizations adhering to stricter protocols in regulating dairies and their employees, AgriStaff USA developed the DairySkills program to help farmers become compliant with the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program.
Available to all dairy farmers in the United States, FARM is a voluntary, national set of guidelines designed to demonstrate farmers' commitment to outstanding animal care and a quality milk supply. Cooperatives, proprietary milk processors and individual producers are using the program to assure consumers that the dairy foods they purchase are produced with integrity.
"This program teaches employees basic stockmanship and principles of humanely working with cows. It also addresses safety issues and provides employees with the knowledge of the correct way to move cows or handle calves," Rodriguez said. "We also work with each farm to develop or review bilingual SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures) customized to their operation."
Currently AgriStaff USA works with clients that range in size from small family-operated farms to large corporate entities. The duo also works with some local cheese processing plants, landscaping companies and grain transportation companies.
In addition, they also work with a handful of ag-related companies in assisting them with their seasonal workforce.
"Our plan is to expand and add additional bilingual in-house employees to meet our growing needs. We are also developing relationships with co-ops to provide our services to their members," Rodriguez said. "We are looking to expand our training program to include OSHA safety standards."
However, Rodriguez says the company's top goal is to create and maintain relationships with their clients that are so important to the small, locally-operated business.
"It is very rewarding to find a good match for both our clients and the employees," Rodriguez said. "We have the ability to change people's lives and give them new opportunities. That's a very rewarding feeling."