It was desperation in the form of two vacant full-time positions that drove Paul Fouts to forsake the perennial "help wanted" ad in his newspaper and try some classy radio advertising, complete with background music and sound effects.
"I had to put away some of my shyness to do that," he says quietly. Taking the risk paid off, though, he insists. The experience actually taught him volumes about how to do a better job as recruiter of dairy farm employees.
"I figured the people at the radio station knew a lot more about what works on radio than I did, so I let them write [and read] the ad," Fouts says. To his surprise, the ad repeated the "Fouts Farm" name again and again. It included pay rate, work hours, a description of the farm's philosophy, and the name of the person to contact when applying for work. The spot ran 20 times over the course of a week and generated more than 30 calls—a hefty response.
In fact, Fouts didn't hire any of those applicants, but he still feels the $400 was money well spent. Now this 185-cow dairy manager writes newspaper ads with personality and flair. Current employees help him phrase the attention-getters by saying which elements in an ad drew them in when they were looking for a job.
Paul and his wife, Laura, keep a notebook of every ad they run. If response is slow, they move quickly to kill the ad and take it back to the drawing board.
A particularly winning ad they printed this summer generated at least 55 calls. Here are elements they believe make a difference:
Print the farm name in bold letters.
Describe the business philosophy, i.e., "a family operation committed to producing a clean and safe food product with the best care possible to our animals and equipment."
Specify work hours and salary.
Offer to train workers with no farm experience.
Direct applicants to "Call Paul at [phone number] before 8 p.m."
List job requirements such as a high school diploma or valid driver's license.
The Foutses do what they can to tout their farm name in the local area. For example, the farm provides a set of three T-shirts for each of the employees with their first names and "Fouts Farm, Cortland, New York" embroidered above the pocket.
"I ask them to save one shirt to wear when they go to town for a meal, to play miniature golf, or that kind of thing," Paul says. "We hope the community will begin to become more familiar with our farm name," he says.
For now, his "new and improved" newspaper ads are effective. But Paul may buy more radio time some day. "With radio, you can reach workers who might not have considered farm work before. There's also the chance our breeder, for example, might hear the ad and mention it to someone he thinks might be interested in working for us."
Another trick to enhance the effectiveness of newspaper advertising, says Brian Wright, of Clinton, Maine, is sharing job applicants with a neighboring dairy.
Brian and brother Steve operate The Wright Place, a 550-cow operation in south-central Maine.
"We have advertised for a position on a 'central Maine dairy,'" says Wright, "and directed the applicants to show up here. I did the screening, then we let the employee pick the spot that was best for him. When he chooses the other dairy instead of us, we don't get upset about it. One will come our way next time."
The farms have different things going for them, Wright explains. One pays higher hourly wages to milkers. The other has better working conditions, or a different menu of benefits and job perks. Sometimes a worker signs on full-time at one dairy and then milks an extra shift at the neighboring place for spare cash.
This flexible and friendly arrangement is a rare gem in agriculture, especially when labor markets are so tight. But it helps both farms build strong reputations as outstanding places to work.
Norman Greig, who dairies in Red Hook, N.Y., draws an analogy between recruiting and hiring farm workers and throwing a great party. "You need to invite the right people, create the right environment so they can feel and look their best, and stimulate them to bring their best to the situation."