Keeping top-notch employees takes more than simply writing a big – or bigger – paycheck every week. With competition from other farms and agribusinesses, employers need to step up to the plate when it comes to benefits, too.

Take Shawn Adam from Adam Valley View Farms at Batavia, IA. After spending four years in the military, he recognizes and appreciates the value of employee benefits. “I look at it as if I was an employee and try to put myself in their shoes. I’d want things like health insurance, too,” says the southeast Iowa operator who farms with his dad Nick, brother Jeff and two full-time employees. The Adams also employs two to three regular seasonal workers on their 6,000-acre operation.

Retaining good employees is a major concern for U.S. farmers, says Tammy Jensen, partner in the recruiting firm of Jensen and Maas, Agricareers, Inc., Massena, IA. “You need to treat them how you’d want to be treated – with respect. You also want to provide them opportunities to learn so they’ll grow into more job responsibilities,” she says.

When it comes to benefits, today it’s all about health insurance, Jensen adds. “It’s the big issue. Salary isn’t No. 1, but you have to pay enough so a good employee won’t worry about the basics for his family,” she says.

Adam pays 100% of employees’ health insurance, including family coverage. Some of the other benefits are implemented in more of a stair-step approach, like vacation, which runs from one to two weeks a year. Typically, they shut down the operation between Christmas and New Year’s and take vacation.

“We also supply housing, but they have to pay for gas and heat. We don’t cover cable or phone service, either,” Adam says. “If they don’t want or need the house, we’ll compensate them in other ways. We provide them a company truck, including gas and insurance.”

Agricareers’ Jensen says a survey it conducted of more than 600 ag employees shows that motivation, or achievement and the ability to take a job from beginning to end, along with increased responsibility, ranks top of the list for job satisfaction. Compensation actually falls lower on the list of what it takes to keep employees happy (see chart).

“We often see a home provided plus utilities, a pickup, meat for the family and some sort of profit sharing,” Jensen says. “Some employers even offer a retirement plan.

“It’s helpful to provide housing, but it has to be a nice place,” she says. “You can’t expect an employee with a family of six to live in a one-bedroom house and be content.”

At Adam Valley View Farms, Jeff handles the business side of the operation and works with banking and finance. Shawn manages employees and the precision-ag components, including equipment and repairs.

Every year, Shawn sits down with employees in a more formal setting and goes through the benefits package and compensation, addressing any problems or concerns.

If it’s been a good year, employees cash in on the farm’s incentive program. “If they put in the time and have good attitudes we pay a cash bonus, usually $500-1,000 their first year,” he explains. “It all depends on how long they’ve been with us. And, if we’ve had a phenomenal year, we’ll reward them more because we want to make sure they feel appreciated. Besides, they know what kind of year we’ve had when 200-bu. corn is selling for $6/bu.

“We also want them to feel like they’re a part of the business. For instance, they can call and order parts themselves; it’s part of their job. They have a lot of responsibility and that makes them like their job more and keeps them motivated,” Adam says. “We often take employees to the Louisville Farm Machinery Show and the Farm Progress Show. They get paid for it and they usually come back with ideas, which benefit all of us.”

Sometimes, it’s the little things that mean the most. For example, the Adams provide lunch every day to employees.

“We built a kitchen at the office and that’s where we talk about the day and check on who’s doing what,” he says. “We supply the food and then one of the guys breaks away early and fires up the grill. We also have a retired woman who comes in once a week to clean up and buy groceries. The guys add grocery items and some of their favorites to a list on the refrigerator. This seems to bring more of a team approach to our farm.”

Although there are agribusinesses not far from him, Adam says they don’t worry too much about what jobs they offer. “We just need to make sure we do the right things. For instance, we train our guys on precision ag and RTK guidance because all of our combines and tractors have auto-steer. If you overlap 6 in., that’s 5% at the end of the day – which is a lot. We’re always looking at efficiency and how we can get the most bang for the buck.”

The Adams buy locally, but do truck in fertilizer because they can buy it in bulk so much cheaper. They also haul off of their grain, which helps keep employees busy and employed.

“I like keeping things going and managing the daily operations,” Adam says. “You have to put together the best damn team you can, and we have it.”