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Building Relationships with your Spanish-Speaking Workforce  

by Mario Miranda Sazo

Over the past five years, many New York fruit farm operations have undergone significant growth. Orchards that used to employ only a handful of people with low-skill horticultural talent now look for more help to meet this demand. Why does one fruit grower always have highly-efficient labor, while other similar farm operations do not? Why are some Spanish-speaking crews so efficient, hard-working, motivated, and committed, while other similar crews at other places aren’t?

Today, many fruit growers have found that their horticultural or machinery skills don’t always translate to Spanish-speaking people skills. Despite their search for horticultural talent to support their recent plantings and new investments, some fruit growers still lack a reliable, skillful, and committed horticultural team to fuel potential growth in the next 5 to 10 years. The competitive challenge for growers is to find, attract, and retain the right people (whether Spanish-speaking employees or not) from within the farm operation, assuming that full-time Spanish-speaking employees are legally employed, satisfied, engaged, and waiting for a new job opportunity inside the farm. Finding the right people that can support the development of new business opportunities won’t be easy. Assembling the wrong horticultural team and staffing up prematurely could become costly and catastrophic.

Innovative growers understand that it is much cheaper to develop a highly skilled and motivated Hispanic fruit team than it is to go out and bring in new people year after year. Empowered employees and orchard managers will perform at their best level, make independent decisions, and find ways to improve orchard operations – including planting, pruning, hand thinning, and harvest.

The Horticultural Team 
Creating a high-functioning horticultural team is challenging under any circumstances. But when the team you are trying to build crosses different cultures, how do you meld individuals’ talents, cultural expectations, and communication barriers into a super-performing team?  For example, if you manage a Spanish-speaking harvest team (where only one or two people can barely communicate in English), you face greater communication challenges than those who lead a Jamaican harvest team (where the majority can speak English).  Complicating your communication task is the probability that in a given growing season you will incorporate the use of some type of new technology or a motorized platform for higher labor efficiency and won’t be fully able to explain the benefits of the technology to your Spanish-speaking employees.

In this complicated and rapidly evolving labor situation for fruit growing, you have to take action to capitalize on new opportunities and execute them efficiently. But it is also essential for you and your teams to learn quickly, to keep up with developing events, and stay ahead of the competition. That will happen only if you foster strong working relationships with your most talented Spanish-speaking employees, and assemble skilled horticultural teams inside your farm.

Orchard Skills  
While there is no single secret to success when building the perfect horticultural team, there are some common traits I recognize in the most successful fruit growers who employ Spanish-speaking employees at their operations. One of the single greatest changes you can make is to build basic Spanish-speaking relations in the orchard.

No matter how good or how poor your Spanish pronunciation is, you must learn to say ”Buenos dias” (Good morning), ”Como está hoy?” (How are you doing today?). You can also say a few words in Spanish and smile – and mean it!  When you or I smile sincerely, the warmth becomes self-reinforcing.

When I am asked to serve as a translator for a meeting between a grower and the Spanish-speaking orchard workers, frequently the first question that the employees will ask their ”patrón” (boss, in Spanish) is, ”How am I doing in my job?”  Though the grower may have just finished going through a list of things that have been done well and some that need improvement, Spanish-speaking employees crave one-on-one contact, horticultural coaching, and constructive feedback – positive or negative – from their boss or orchard manager. Some growers do a good job of addressing this question, if not on a daily basis, then at least when they have a translator like me available.

Growers must show real interest in the well-being of your orchard workers, and regularly ask some of the questions mentioned above. This sort of attention to Spanish-speaking communication creates a relationship between you and your orchard worker, with the result that the labor task receives maximum attention. Your workers’ commitment to the fruit farm also will increase. If you work hard at this aspect of communication with your Spanish-speaking employees, you will create better, trusted, longer-lasting relationships, and avoid having to look for and train new people every year.

Most successful Spanish-speaking orchard managers are smart, have good people skills, can build confidence and generate enthusiasm, enjoy interacting with other growers, know the horticultural details of pruning, hand thinning, and harvest, and reliably make their budgets and deliver results.

In addition to all this, the best Spanish-speaking orchard managers have something more – they are curious, walk the orchard regularly, and can look at a problem through multiple lenses. They excel at mobilizing and exciting Spanish-speaking workers and are clear about the tasks to be accomplished (i.e., number of fruit buds to leave per tree when conducting precision pruning) but know when to change direction. They can see when a new pruning practice will be profitable and convert it to a new horticultural management tool. They can spot an unmet need (e.g., picking apples efficiently without the use of ladders) and change course to go after a bigger profit and more comfortable working conditions for Spanish-speaking orchard workers.

As their teams pursue new labor goals (more bins of high quality fruit per person per day when harvesting and clipping apples with motorized platforms) and strive to achieve this or other milestones, they have a clear view of what is in or out of alignment in terms of skills and capabilities, compensation, communication, how workers are collaborating and behaving.

How Our Program Began 
In 2011, while working for of the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Lake Ontario Fruit (LOF) program, I began to realize that further training was necessary for Hispanic employees in Western New York. From 2009 to 2011, I was speaking to individuals during work time (planting, pruning, hand thinning, and harvest) and began to understand their work challenges, personal aspirations, relations with management and co-workers, job injuries, and overall technical understanding of the apple growing business. I also found that Hispanic employees tended to be younger on average than their non-Hispanic counterparts, and some of them were more eager for new technical knowledge and new opportunities.

Growers who were mentoring and taking care of their employees were experiencing an improved stability in the workforce. It seemed to me that these Hispanic employees went out of their comfort zone to increase orchard efficiency above and beyond labor expectations. I envisioned that a basic training in horticulture and pest management would be beneficial for all Hispanic men and women working in fruit farms in Western NY.

In 2012, we began a horticultural and pest management educational program, which has been more successful on the west side of Rochester than in Wayne County. More than 280 employees have been trained in the Lake Ontario Fruit region. Classroom-based instruction has been successful, but it needs to be complemented with non-formal science education in the orchard. This year, 80 Spanish-speaking fruit workers participated in a full day educational winter session. Attendees were introduced to basic and applied pomological and pest management concepts and modern apple pruning practices in the Spanish language.

Participants who have attended two or three of the five Spanish-speaking fruit schools offered so far have increased their overall understanding of rootstocks, crop load management, and pruning of high density plantings.  Lastly, the first summer tour conducted last summer for Spanish-speaking farmers and workers established some common ground and began a networking system for Hispanics in our fruit region. The tour was well attended, with approximately 105 participants. The success and future of the CCE LOF Spanish-Speaking Fruit School Program is very promising.

Mario Miranda Sazo is an Extension Associate who specializes in orchard management and orchard mechanization with the Lake Ontario Fruit Program through Cornell Cooperative Extension. 

The author acknowledges the Cornell faculty and Cornell Extension staff who presented talks and prepared materials for this project. Additionally, the author thanks Jose Iniguez for his constant support and contributions for a more successful educational programming for Hispanics. 

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