Cultivating the best employees, one strawberry at at time
Mid-morning in the lunch room was surprisingly busy. As a fresh pot was brewing, a co-worker of mine was bubbling with excitement over her teenage daughter landing a coveted position at a local strawberry farm.
“So she’ll be picking strawberries?” I asked.
“And she’s excited?” I curled my nose up, thinking back to my teenage years and the punishment of this kind of manual outdoor labour.
“Oh definitely. There’s a waitlist so it’s kind of a big deal.”
“How does a strawberry farm have a waitlist of teenage employees?” I asked.
She shrugged: “it’s just a great place to work.”
I picked the perfect morning to tour a strawberry farm. The sun is out, the breeze is light and southern Manitoba is 50 shades of green. The dust settles after I park in front of the pleasantly stereotypical big red barn. I’m greeted with a hug from Angie and a boisterous bark from Smokey.
“Let me show you around,” she offers.
Our shoes crunch the gravel as we walk down a winding driveway alongside strawberry fields (almost) forever - eight acres to be exact.
“We’ve grown as the demand has grown and we’re very busy,” Angie says, brushing dirt off the side of her shorts. “When we first started, I thought we could plant by hand,” she laughs, reminiscing.
After 15 years in business it’s an understatement to say the woman with the strawberry tattoo on her forearm loves these juicy red berries. She knows a thing or two about planting strawberries and also, I’m discovering, about employee engagement.
I spot nine people in the far corner of the field, each in a different row, legs spread and backs hunched over. My back is hurting just looking at them.
“They’re weeding,” Angie points out.
“They’re smiling.” I state the obvious, incredulously.
She laughs, unsurprised, “yeah I guess you’re right!”
Strawberry picking season is very short but oh-so-sweet. It lasts anywhere from two to five weeks with months of prep on either end. It’s an incredible amount of work to harvest the juicy red berries the Cormier family has become famous for growing. To run smoothly every year, Angie and her husband Darren rely on local teenagers to help plant, weed, pick and also act as customer service ambassadors during peak season.
On paper, the perks are dismal.
Like much of the ag industry, employment at Cormier’s is seasonal, weather-dependent and physically demanding. Hours are never guaranteed. I didn’t ask what the pay is like, but I suspect not much has changed since my teenage years when minimum wage was the name of the salary game.
So how does Angie, who admits she has never advertised for staff, end up turning away applicants every year?
“We’re flexible with them and in turn, they’re understanding with us.”
Angie understands something that many CEOs struggle to embrace. When you treat your employees like they belong, they’ll take ownership of their roles.
“If you don’t set expectations and communicate them, they stir inside you and it helps no one.”
Last year Angie took a course on HR for agriculture (true leaders never stop learning) and as a result, combed through job descriptions to refine expectations even further. They also implemented an info session for new applicants to set expectations from the earliest stage of contact.
“We’ll hire as young as 14 and usually by the time they graduate [high school] they’ve got full time summer jobs somewhere else, but a few still make time for us because they like it so much,” Angie shares. When you’ve got engaged employees, you keep them around as long as you can.
At an early age, these kids are learning about accountability and responsibility. Case in point:
“I don’t schedule the kids. They’re responsible for the hours they sign up for.”
An app (When I Work) facilitates this: employees are notified when shifts are released for the upcoming week. More senior employees get first dibs but everyone is responsible for their own time.
“It’s impossible to schedule too far in advance,” she explains. “We don’t always know what the demand will be like or what the plants will look like after a busy day so after I post available hours, the kids own their schedules.”
There is an expectation of maturity for these teens but hey, they’re still in high school so it can’t all drama-free all the time. Angie is clear about her role as their boss, not their parent, but it should come as no surprise that a woman who donated a kidney to her sister just one year ago has a heart that extends to her teenage staff.
On particularly long days, the late shift might get to enjoy pizza or a homemade meal for dinner with Angie, Darren and their own kids. Sitting at a picnic table after a long day in the sun is good for the soul and good for business.
“We use that time to recap, especially early in the season, to find out what’s working and where we need to make adjustments. The kids are really good at providing feedback and it helps us because Darren and I can’t be everywhere at once.”
It’s not highly technical but it is entirely effective. A mutual respect allows for this communication to happen naturally, in a setting that feels familial. Imagine being able to share direct feedback with the CEO of your organization and seeing that feedback implemented shortly thereafter. It’s a pipe dream for many but reality for these teens.
Each of these young workers will go on to build careers and some may even hire their own employees one day. They’ll take with them the lessons they learn throughout life and, if we’re lucky, the leadership they witnessed that summer at the strawberry farm.