The Ag Employer's Guide to Buying and Implementing HR Technology

February 22, 2024

This guide is a refined version of my talk at the 2024 G.S. Long Winter Ag Academy workshops in Yakima, Wenatchee, and Kennewick.

When Harvust adds a new customer, I get to witness how growers successfully implement our software. However, I've also seen some implementations that have been a bit bumpier, and I've learned from those, too. In this guide, I've distilled all those learnings into the following tips and best practices for buying and implementing HR software, illustrated through real-life examples.

What does the future of human resources in agriculture look like?

Software is a natural fit and can be transformative if done right.

By its nature, a digital transformation will mean less paperwork, binders, and filing. Software will be the direction HR managers will automatically turn to to solve any problem at scale.

As less technologically sophisticated workers age out of the workforce, younger foreign workers who are digital natives will take their place. The amount of Snapchat notification sounds I heard during an H-2A onboarding in Yakima last summer was all the evidence I needed to support the idea that we can ask workers to complete tasks for the farm on their phones. In the same way, white-collar workers take calls, answer emails, etc., today.

Finally, the regulatory environment will grow so complex that HR representatives and managers will need contextual advice to stay compliant. They will need it in real-time to quickly make decisions to protect the farm and increase efficiencies without waiting for outside consultants, lawyers, etc.

The most successful growers on Harvust were those who, from the outset of looking for a software solution, had a vision for what success would be like on their farm. Consequently, I've broken down my advice into two sections: buying and implementing. 

Tips for Buying Ag HR Software

Find a cost structure that works for your farm

If the software is too expensive, or you feel like you're paying for things you don't need, it will significantly reduce your ability to commit to using it. And so when it fails to solve your problems you're stuck in a worse position, you're stuck with the question: "Did it fail because it was bad tech, or because we didn't give it a fair shot?" Try to get a financial commitment from your leadership before implementing a new tool. Commitment may be easier to obtain if you can find a software vendor that is flexible with pricing. For example, at Harvust, we look back each month, count how many employees you used Harvust with, and then send you an invoice for that amount. Post-pay might be an acceptable structure for some farms, but others may want to pay in advance, and others might prefer a fixed-fee contract. Many software companies will be willing to work with you on this. Make sure how you pay for the software is aligned with how it provides you value and that your finances can successfully support it.

Define what the possibilities for software integrations will be

Every piece of software has limitations. Newer software will have fewer constraints for integration. For example, at Harvust, our integration philosophy is that we will attempt to build an integration for every one of our customers, no matter their size. Integrations are a superpower for small farms, and for large farms, they are table stakes. I say "attempt" because we've found that the older "legacy" systems growers and packers use are severely constrained and unable to talk to other systems. 

Your existing systems will dictate your future systems! Ask yourself if problems on your farm aren't being solved because the amount of time/money/effort to upgrade your legacy system is too high. Your existing software is the foundation that will support your HR functionalities in a future of increased regulation and scale. Is it up for the task? If not, I wouldn't consider adding new systems until your legacy system is replaced. If you add new software, just be aware that things might be sub-optimal. Sub-optimal is OK, as long as it is costing you less than the problem you're solving was costing you. Try to nail down these tradeoffs during the buying process. You can come out net positive and, in some cases, enormously positive!

Look for industry partnerships that you trust

I have heard horror stories of growers using a Silicon Valley startup's farm HR software, costing them tens of thousands of dollars in labor costs! Don't be suspicious of software claiming to know farming, but check their credentials and humility. When we started Harvust, we learned our customers had a problem with monthly safety meetings taking too much time, not knowing what to train on, etc., but I didn't understand anything about farm safety! So, we partnered with the Washington State Farm Bureau safety team. We took their expertise and programmed it into Harvust. So now, with one click, you get safety meeting recommendations from the experts many of our customers already relied on, and it runs 100% automatically.

Research, planning, deciding, and conducting the safety meeting are now things you don't have to do. Don't let poorly designed software lead you into compliance problems; you can tell a lot about a person (or a company) by who they hang out with. Doing this easy diligence during the buying process can save you down the road.

Don't fall for "data-driven insights"; the insights you can realistically execute are what matters

The great thing about utilizing more software is that it allows you to instrument and track more of your operation in different dimensions than before. This firehose of data is sold as the most important value, but can often be overwhelming. We had that happen with Harvust's anonymous employee feedback tool. At the end of each direct-to-employee training on Harvust, the farmworker is asked to leave an anonymous comment. For our larger growers, this can mean hundreds of comments a month! Most of these comments are saying things like "gracias," "bueno," and "👍" but some are extremely serious safety complaints like drunk driving and sexual harassment. These serious safety concerns were getting lost in a flood of irrelevant comments. So Harvust is now using an AI to automatically categorize comments as important and hide the rest. We're taking this noisy (but essential) data and adding a layer of insight that is plainly understood and quickly acted on by any HR manager, preventing massive liability. When evaluating a new software's "data" features, ask yourself if what it gives you is truly actionable for your specific farm. If not, could the software be doing more to help you act?

Demand that software take things entirely off your plate

We all want tools that make our job tasks more straightforward, but we should ask for tools that can do the entire task from end to end, so we're not involved at all! In 2021, WA L&I (Washington state's OSHA enforcement agency) released a rule calling for growers to communicate to farmworkers when the air quality became hazardous at the 151 AQI level. We found our customers were using our workforce communication tool to message their employees when the air quality worsened to this action level. After talking to one of our growers, we found that they felt like they might forget to check the air quality every hour, that they weren't documenting things, and that their compliance would lapse. To make matters worse, L&I, in their permanent rule, now has five action levels!

So we took that "next step" and fused hyper-accurate air quality data into our software with our knowledge of these regulations. Harvust now continuously checks the air quality at our customer's ranches and automatically messages employees at each action level. By taking this task entirely off your plate, we're eliminating the workload on you and guaranteeing compliance. During software demonstrations, ask yourself if the tool is taking that "next step" and going that extra mile.

Best Practices for Implementing Ag HR Software

Get in the weeds on HR software integrations

As I mentioned previously, integrating your new system with your existing systems can be a huge opportunity to increase the ROI of your HR stack. The first step during implementation is to fully understand the spectrum of different integration types. Below is a graphic I made outlining that:

Most of the time, you think adding a new system will just add complexity, but it doesn't have to be that way when you work with software vendors who value deep, seamless integrations.

Now that you understand the landscape of integrations, you'll be better prepared to push your new system to work with your existing systems and vice versa.

Be willing to change your workflows

Don't just take a broken process and make it digital. If it is broken, it will still be broken! Software lends itself to many optimizations, but I've found a few methods that are particularly potent in an agricultural context.

The first is taking serial operations and turning them into parallel operations. What does this mean? Here is a graphic that illustrates it:

Serial means doing things one after another, while parallel means doing things at the same time or in batches. Many Harvust growers take photos of each employee for their company ID badges. They complained that their process took too long because they only had one office phone with a camera and lined everyone up, took their photo, checked to see if it was blurry, cropped it around the face, saved it, and repeated. So we approached them with a new method: send a message to each employee's phone and have them take a selfie, use AI to check if the photo is good, and automatically crop and save it. So now all the employees are doing it simultaneously, and we've taken a process that would have taken an HR manager 4 steps x N employees down to just one step.

And that one step is now much faster: a single click. Are there processes in your HR office that can be parallelized with the right tool? That leads me to the following few methods of optimizing your workflows with a new system: time-saving and time-shifting. 

Time-saving is obvious, but the magnitude can vary depending on the software's design and usage. We had a grower tell us how their safety meetings would take forever; this resulted in lots of paid, non-productive time. When we sat in on a safety meeting, we found that only a fraction of the safety meeting was spent on safety! Most of it was spent waiting for late arrivals, chit-chat, and asking questions that had nothing to do with safety. We could have designed a digital clipboard to facilitate in-person safety meetings. Instead, we designed Harvust to send the safety meetings directly to the worker's phones. Workers completed their safety meetings on their own, wherever they were. The result was a considerable savings in labor costs and better quality training. If you take the chance, there are ways to use a new software tool that can result in dramatic time savings.

Time shifting is felt more in the HR office. You've got a million things on your to-do list; some have to be done right now, and some can be done later. What's worse is when something has to be done right now, but you just don't have the time, or you have the time in the morning but not anymore! Think about tasks that interrupt your work that you wish you could do beforehand. For example, on Harvust, you can schedule messages to be sent to your farm employees in the future. So you can write your company announcement today while you have time, and it can go out in the future when you know you'll be busy. This is another step towards gradually automating tasks. You'll be happier when you can start doing work on your terms rather than constantly reacting.

Designate a champion

We've seen that our most successful Harvust deployments are those where there is a single person in the company who owns the setup and usage of the new software. A few weeks ago, I chatted with the owner of a large tree fruit growing and packing operation in Yakima, WA. He told me he isn't even getting everything he wants out of his existing ag labor management systems because there isn't anyone in his organization to shoulder the organizational burden of their systems.

Adding any new system will add a fixed cost of administrative burden, and these new software systems often cross multiple company departments: human resources, IT, farm operations, payroll, etc. Because it impacts so many, it's hard for any one department to own it, let alone a single person. However, if leadership designates someone to this cross-functional position, we've seen a much faster and smoother implementation. Give the champion decision-making authority and establish them as the main point of contact with your software vendor. Finally, because this person will learn the ins and outs of the new software, they can provide contextual support to other employees, resulting in buy-in up and down your farm's org chart.

P.S. This champion might be you!

Set expectations for employees

First, establish who is going to use the new software. You'll likely figure this out during the buying process, but clearly defining this will help in the next step. Second, establish who is going to benefit from the new software. These may be different groups of people! For example, you might ask checkers to move from manual punch cards to an electronic time-tracking system like FieldClock. This change would represent a new way of working for them, training on a new device, etc., and while there may be some mild advantages for them, the payroll team will receive the most benefits. Since the reward for the behavior change isn't theirs, it is vital to communicate to them the importance of the new system to the company. Putting a face to the benefits can be a good tactic in aligning employees on a new system. For example, "using Harvust for training will help Christina keep the farm safer for everyone." Lead by example, and make clear that using this new system is now part of their job responsibilities, just like using any other farm tool.

Final thoughts...

Take the lessons I've shared so you don't have to learn them yourself. When working with a new agricultural HR system, remember that you aren't buying an app; you are buying a partnership. Realize the constraints and opportunities available to your company, and when purchasing and implementing, push this partner to do more for you and to do it better.

(yes, you're going to end up on our email list, but we don't send that many)

(yes, you're going to end up on our email list, but we don't send that many)

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This is Hannah, she runs HR at Milbrandt Management in Washington. When you start using Harvust you'll be dancing too!
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James Christopher Hall

For 5 years, as the co-owner of Harvust, James has built farm labor management tools. Every year he spends a day working in the fields of Harvust customers to understand the problems they and their employees face. James has seen first-hand the needs of thousands of farmworkers, and the human resources professionals that they rely on. That experience drives him to continue working to make managing farm labor better for employers and employees.