Positive work culture, incentives retains employees at Vir-Clar Farms

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Gary Boyke, one of the owners of Vir-Clar Farms, third from left, congratulates employees on reaching their 10-year employment milestone at the Fond du Lac County dairy farm. Finding and retaining quality employees is a top priority for dairy farms across the nation.

Attracting and retaining a loyal workforce in a competitive labor market has become a huge challenge for businesses of all sizes.

Farms are especially feeling the pressure of high turnover. With fewer workers in the labor force, farm owners across the state are competing with employers who have stepped up their recruitment tactics, luring potential candidates to their payroll using lucrative sign-on bonuses and comprehensive benefits packages.

"I was working 60 hours a week at a Marathon County dairy farm," said Mark White. "Now I'm working a 40-hour week at a manufacturing plant for nearly twice as much money. Plus I have insurance and way more family time."

How can farms compete?

While most farm owners say they cannot compete with large manufacturing plants, they are able to offer employees a unique work environment.

After graduating from college Katie Grinstead of Fond du Lac contemplated several job offers. The employer she eventually selected wasn't based on the size of her future paycheck.

"During the interview there was constant talk about family and I had a sense that they really took care of each other. That was important to me because I was going to be away from my family," she said. "During the time my siblings and I spent away from the farm, we gained a lot of knowledge of what it's like to be an employee and now an employer."

Today Grinstead runs Vir-Clar Farm with her husband, Grant Grinstead, parents Gary and Rose Boyke and brother J.R. Boyke. Begun 74 years ago by her grandparents, Clarence and Virginia Boyke, the Fond du Lac County farm has grown from 13 Guernsey cows to a herd of 2400 Holsteins that are milked three times a day in a double-30 parlor.

"When we were milking 300 cows, family was still doing a lot of the work with a couple of part-time helpers. But as we kept on expanding we had to add on more employees," Grinstead said. "Today we have 38 full-time employees."

Competition among dairy farms for dependable employees is brisk. And while some employees may opt for the job paying the highest hourly wage, Grinstead said many employees are looking for more in a workplace: positive work culture, employee appreciation and a family-like atmosphere.

"I admired my grandfather Clarence's way with people. It didn't matter to him if you were the CEO or the janitor of a company, he treated all people with the utmost respect. And I see that in my own parents," Grinstead said. "I'm a people person, too. I love to make people feel welcome and happy."

Employees already working at Vir-Clar Farms are invited to share in task of recruiting new workers thanks to farm's referral bonus program. Grinstead says employees referring a new hire receives a bonus once the new worker reaches the 30-day mark. After six months, the new hire and referring employee receive a second bonus.

"Another strategy that's worked really well for us is to promote from within before hiring from the outside," she said. "We really try to empower our employees to make a change and move from one position to another."

Katie Grinstead and her brother, JR Boyke, left, celebrate head milking shift leader Edgar's 25th work anniversary at Vir-Clar Farms.

While most employees start out milking cows before advancing to other positions, Grinstead says their employee with the most years of service ‒ 25 years ‒ still prefers to milk cows.

"He's happy being the head shift milker," she says with a laugh. "It's really important to know your people and what their skills are, their likes and dislikes. Our herdsman is really good at fostering a good work environment so people want to come to work every day."

Empowering, valuing employees

Grinstead says it's important to value and listen to employee feedback. Two years ago Vir-Clar Farms adopted a 12-hour milking work shift spearheaded by employees.

"We like to let employees drive some of those decisions. And this decision really helps out with the ride situation," she said.

Transportation to and from work can be a major challenge for some farm employees, especially those having to share a single vehicle with a working spouse, or lacking a driver's license or a reliable vehicle. With most of their employees living in the Fond du Lac area, Grinstead said they once contemplated providing housing for employees as a way to solve the transportation issue.

"There's a lot of things I know I don't want to be in my life and a landlord is one of them," she said. "Five years ago we started offering a 365-day ride-share program using the services of an employee's wife and her relatives."

Nearly 70 percent of the farm's employees participate in the program. While the farm pays the majority of the cost, Grinstead says employees must cover some of the expense 'so they have some skin in the game.' Employees save money on gas and they arrive on time.

"There are strict rules and they hold each other accountable," Grinstead said. "When the driver is out there, they'd better be ready, cause if someone is late, everyone else is late."

Employees at Vir-Clar Farms gather for their annual Christmas party.

Extended family

Treating employees like family is a priority for the Grinsteads and Boykes. Each employee is recognized on their birthday with a special treat and shout out on the farm's Facebook page.

"A lot of people don't have family here in the U.S. and birthdays are kind of a special day," Grinstead says.

In addition, employees are treated to an annual Christmas party with gifts and a holiday bonus. In the summer, workers and their families gather for the yearly picnic.

"We try to do a lot of things where we can get to know their spouses and kids as they're part of our extended work family," Grinstead said.

Nurturing others is in Grinstead's DNA and is quite evident in the pleasure she derives from cooking for employees, whether for meetings, employee recognitions or for crews working around the clock to bring in the harvest.

"I like to take care of people and that's a natural fit for me," she said. "At harvest time you can find me putting lunches together and delivering them out in the fields. They're very happy to see me coming with a hot meal."

Members of the harvest crew celebrate bringing in their harvest at Vir-Clar Farms south of Fond du Lac, Wis.

In addition to earned vacation time, Vir-Clar Farms will be offering a monthly stipend to employees to purchase insurance out on the marketplace.

"We are all self-insured too, so we're all in the same boat. However, they do have to take the first step and find insurance. We are working with a group to help manage all that," Grinstead said.

Currently the management team is exploring the possibility of offering English classes to employees not fluent in English.

"How nice would it be for those employees who only speak Spanish if they could communicate in English? That would help them in their every day lives on and off the farm," she said.

While Grinstead acknowledges that they may not offer the highest pay available, she says they definitely don't want to be the lowest.

"They need to make a living and support their families too," she said. "I think what is key is getting them wrapped into our culture. We don't look at them like they're just an employee. They're equals and part of our team and work family. I always tell people that we're still a family farm. We're just supporting and taking care of a lot more families than just our own."