Workforce expert helps NY ag respond to challenges

Managing a growing business can be daunting, and workforce issues are among the greatest challenges. New York state’s farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs are getting a big lift solving those workforce issues, thanks to Richard Stup.

A senior extension associate and agricultural workforce specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and at Cornell Cooperative Extension, Stup addresses workforce challenges facing the agriculture industry through educational programs and applied research. The Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development program he leads helps farm and agribusiness managers build effective employee teams by applying the best human resource management practices for the agricultural setting. The program is unique because of its strong focus on research and extension.

Richard Stup

Stup received his Ph.D. in workforce education and development from Pennsylvania State University, and worked in extension in Pennsylvania before going into private business. He founded Ag Workforce Development, a firm focused on improving individual and team performance through organization development and technology solutions, experience he brings to the Cornell program.

Stup spoke recently about his appreciation for agriculture, the challenges facing the industry in New York, and the path forward for farmers looking to modernize their business operations.

What are the biggest challenges you see facing New York’s agricultural industry?

Having a steady, reliable and competitive workforce is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry. There literally aren’t enough people in the country to get all the work done that our agricultural industry demands. Farmers are already adjusting business and crop plans because they sometimes can’t find enough labor to get the work done.

Leadership development is another big challenge. Many farms are larger than they were in the past, and they have a combination of family and non-family employees. Larger operations require skilled managers and leaders to create the right business culture, communicate effectively, and provide the stability and direction that people need to be successful.

Consumers are increasingly interested in the lives of the many people who helped grow and prepare the foods they eat; they are very focused on the living and working experiences of farm employees. Most farmers do a good job providing suitable housing and working conditions, but just one problem situation can create a bad impression of agriculture.

What trends have you seen over the past few years?

There is a high degree of professionalism that the next generation is bringing to agriculture. Younger farm managers are highly aware of changing employee and consumer expectations, and they are rapidly adapting to meet them. These young managers are having a big impact on workforce development; they know that people have options, and farms must compete to be an attractive place to work.

What are you doing in your role to support New York’s farmers?

There’s a lot going on but I’ll highlight a few areas. One is the industry group called the Agricultural Workforce Development Council. They identified employee onboarding as a critical area for improvement. I’ve been leading a team with representatives from the whole industry to develop a model onboarding program that farms can easily adapt and use. We’re trying to help farms be compliant with all employment laws, help employees learn their jobs quickly and safely, and create a great working experience for both employers and employees. We want employees to be safe, productive, and engaged from day 1.

We’re planning several opportunities for farmers and industry to learn more about human resource management and employment laws. There are multiple workshops planned at conferences and an event we call the Labor Road Show II, which will bring these topics to four locations across the state.

Speaking of employment laws, New York has a new sexual harassment prevention law that applies to all employers, including all farm employers. I’ve been heavily involved in recent months helping farmers understand and make plans to meet these new requirements.

Cornell impacting New York State

We also developed a set of management resources for farmers who provide housing to their employees. There are three documents: guidelines for managers; an orientation guide for employees, offered in English and Spanish; and a housing inspection checklist. Our resources were adapted by the National Milk Producers Federation and are now part of the national standards for worker care.

The Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development website is an important part of our outreach effort. The website hosts a lot of materials and resources that people can use to improve human resource management. It is also the home of the Ag Workforce Journal. The journal provides timely updates about workforce issues in agriculture, and extension educators and agribusiness can use these articles in their newsletters.

What role is technology playing in agricultural workforce development?

Certainly communications technology is a big factor. Managers go to the internet first to find answers to problems. That means building a relevant and constantly updated website is critical. It’s also important to adapt and use social media appropriately.

Online training is also growing quickly. Farmers must constantly update training for farm employees. More farmers are using online resources to supplement training and to track employee completion.

How did you get involved in agriculture?

I grew up on my family’s dairy farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. When I first went to college I wanted to get away from agriculture, but my experiences at Penn State showed me that agriculture was a lot more than what I knew as a youngster. … Today, Cornell gives me world-class experts as colleagues and the ability to leverage the research and extension resources of a great university to address agriculture’s workforce challenges. I feel very blessed to be helping farm owners, managers, employees and agribusiness personnel to build fulfilling and sustainable careers in this great industry.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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