By Darcy Maulsby and Beth Lutter

When it comes to establishing and maintaining strong employee relationships, producer Joe Dykhuis says that respecting employee differences while working toward common goals is what keeps their pig barns running smoothly.

“No two barns or two people are alike,” said Dykhuis, who with his parents and four sisters have 18,000 sows and raise market pigs in Michigan. “That means managers can’t treat employees in every barn the same.”

The farm has employees with varying backgrounds and world views, he said.

“We teach the We CareSM ethical principles and set expectations of respect and hard work,” Dykhuis said. “We want team members to pull together on what needs to be accomplished in the barns and work toward that in an atmosphere where everyone can contribute.”

Encouraging professional growth keeps employees motivated and ensures that anyone who wants to keep growing has an opportunity to do so if they put forth the initiative, he explained.

“We have people that started out in pig production now employed in every area of our company,” Dykhuis said.

Employee Care is No. 1

Keith Schoettmer, an Indiana producer and a past America’s Pig Farmer of the YearSM, agrees that employee care isn’t just a specific business practice, but an overall mindset.

“First of all, I consider myself an employee of my farm, which is a farrow-to-finish operation with about 1,100 sows,” said Schoettmer, who has seven full-time employees, plus some part-timers.

Schoettmer’s No. 1 job? Reduce stress on employees.

“In most cases where things aren’t working right, you can trace it back to employee stress,” he said.

He tries to make sure his farm has enough help to cover the work that must be done.

“I want employees to have enough time to do the job right,” Schoettmer said. “I’d much rather have one employee too many than not enough. All this relates back to animal well-being.”

To relieve stress and make work more enjoyable, Schoettmer and employees take time off for staff outings.

“We’ve gone canoeing, go-kart racing and more,” Schoettmer said. “We all come back more relaxed, and we’ve built teamwork.”

All this also helps with employee retention.

“Most employees have been with us at least two years, and some as much as 23 years,” Schoettmer said.

Employee care includes educating employees about We Care. New employees also are trained in PQA Plus®, and the farm participates in the pork industry’s Common Swine Industry Audit.

“Leading by example helps employees internalize the We Care principles,” Schoettmer said. “We have people work in pairs or teams when possible so we can explain not only how we do things, but why. This builds camaraderie and a level of accountability.”

All this reflects the fact that pig farming is a people business, Schoettmer added.

“We want to make our employees part of the farm, so treating them fairly and with respect is essential,” he said. “We also look for ways to let them know how much we appreciate them.”

Employees are the farm’s life blood, he emphasized.

“I am passionate about all the We Care principles, but none of them work if we don’t take care of our employees first.”

“No two barns or two people are alike. That means that managers can’t treat employees in every barn the same.”
– Joe Dykhuis, Michigan

Keith Schoettmer (left) says employees are his farm’s life blood.

Employee Care
Producers affirm their obligation to provide a work environment that is safe and consistent with their other ethical principles.

  • Provide a work environment that promotes the health and safety of employees.
  • Educate employees on the ethical principles for U.S. pork producers and prepare them to meet their obligations consistent with these principles.
  • Provide a work environment where employees are treated fairly and with respect.

Employee Care the “Wakefield Way”

Mary Langhorst, owner of Wakefield Pork, says employee care is a key part of this Minnesota-based farm’s barn culture.

“The Wakefield way is honesty, integrity, and being the best at what we’re doing,” she said. “Our goal isn’t to be the largest. We like that close-knit feeling with our employees and contract growers.”

Employee care at takes many forms, including:
Recruiting. About 90 percent of employees come through word-of-mouth recruiting, recommendations from employees or outreach to area high schools, community colleges and universities. It’s not unusual for family members to work together.

Onboarding for success. New employees are trained and taught the “Wakefield way” through a proven onboarding process.

“New employees learn about biosecurity, safety and more,” Langhorst said. “They complete PQA Plus® training within their first 30 days. A good start helps them better understand what raising pigs is all about.”

Opportunities for growth. Langhorst conducts employee reviews yearly, picking a theme such as professionalism.

“I sit down with each employee to understand their goals,” Langhorst said. “I want to help get them into job roles they see themselves growing into. We promote from within and enjoy high levels of employee retention. Our managers average 17 years of service.”

Close connections. While running a pig farm isn’t an easy job, Wakefield Pork never loses sight of one key philosophy: what’s fun gets done.

“We do a lot of fun activities together,” Langhorst said. “We’re family-oriented. We want to engage in employees’ lives because we truly care about them.”

Mary Langhorst (far right) fields questions during one of the many farm tours Wakefield Pork has hosted to share how pigs are raised today.