HR for vertical farms: How COVID, CEA’s high-tech focus have changed hiring

Features - human resources

A recent webinar explored ways that vertical produce farms – one of ag’s hottest segments with young people – can successfully attract the talent and expertise needed for long-term staying power.

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March 22, 2021

Fifth Season (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) is in a great location for recruiting “horti-curious” employees with solid applied technology and engineering backgrounds.

A recent webinar presented by Indoor Ag Conversations (indoor.ag/webinar/) detailed creative and fresh approaches for attracting talent in one of agriculture’s hottest segments: vertical indoor farming.

Featuring representatives from some of the highest-profile vertical farming operations around — AeroFarms (Newark, New Jersey), Fifth Season (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and Kalera (multiple sites across U.S. Southwest) — the panel discussed how hiring practices have shifted, morphed and evolved in the controlled environment ag universe.

“To me, the crux of the entire vertical farming industry is this unique intersection of agriculture and technology with hiring that means finding the candidate with the horticulture background and the technology expertise,” says Brac Webb, Fifth Season’s co-founder and COO.

Finding the right talent

MaryAlice Feinstein is AeroFarm’s chief people officer, heading up human resources for the world’s largest vertical produce farm by gross output.

Feinstein says that casting a wide net and being data-driven are two guiding principles for her recruitment efforts for the massive, East Coast-based B Corp.

“Diversity and inclusion in our hiring practices [are] super important to us, so the wider the net we can cast, the better,” Feinstein says, noting the success the vertical farm has found in recruiting former interns to fill permanent, full-time roles.

“We are committed to keeping those internships going even during COVID, and it’s paid off and been really successful,” she adds. “We’ve also sponsored and had good success with some regional incarceration re-entry programs. It’s something we’re super proud of.”

And when the steady open-spigot stream of compelling candidates slows to a trickle, it is time to deep dive into your data — your own website data, social media data, etc. — and see where good candidates have come from in the past, and double back to those sources, she advises.

Kalera’s Keri Gasiorowski, chief human resources officer, says a well-rounded recruiting effort should leave no stone unturned, even if that “stone” turns out to be the local food truck lunch meet-up spot down the street.

“I find it fascinating that we’ve found a bunch of good employees here in Orlando just by chatting up some of the locals at the neighborhood taco truck,” she says. “And we’ve had solid prospecting with hosting hiring events in partnership with a local career center, or even the Goodwill center.”

In Pittsburgh, Fifth Season’s Webb leans on a burgeoning local tech hub scene that has organically bubbled up in the city’s Oakland neighborhood near Pitt University and Carnegie Mellon University. They are also working on getting to know the neighbors, which the leadership team hopes will help the group hire more local prospects based on referrals.

“We’re working on these walk-up events for the people that live here in town, so they can learn about the facility, they can come in and ask us all the questions that they have and see what we’re doing here, and also get some fresh, nutritious locally grown food to take home with them as well,” he shares.

How COVID changed the game

AeroFarms proactively kick-started the touchy process of determining which employees were indeed “essential” to the operation, and thus would remain on site through much of the pandemic, and those who could conceivably function and provide support remotely.

Then, the real heavy lifting came into play.

“I feel like we were way ahead of the game in setting up daily temperature taking stations before it was mandated by the state. I’d say overall we did a really good job [dealing with COVID],” Feinstein says. “Now we bring in someone to COVID test our employees on site every two weeks, and the employees really seem to appreciate that.”

Instead of panicking and barking up every tree in search of a magic solution to deal with COVID, Feinstein says the group’s cool headedness has paid dividends.

“We kept a cool and calm mindset, and we just looked around and we kind of realized that all of the resources and knowledge that we have around us in this diverse organization, that we could lean on that and we could make this work,” she says.

The pandemic itself added to the preliminary hiring qualifications that Kalera looks for in a candidate. Sure, passing a pre-employment drug screen and background check are still important boxes to check, but now just as crucial is making sure a prospective employee will fit in with the ethos of the greater organization.

“I think COVID has been really unique in that it’s become this all-encompassing, moral, political, ethical and health issue, and for us it’s just as important that anyone we hire finds alignment with how our organization views and responds to COVID as those other pre-employment screening activities,” Gasiorowski says. “And keep in mind you’ll likely have employees with opinions about COVID that fall on both sides of the aisle.”

At Fifth Season, Webb points to the strong culture the group put in place from the start as the catalyst in holding everything together during a chaotic time.

“My biggest tip is to establish your culture first. That is just incredibly important because it influences how people work together, as well as how innovative whatever they’ve been hired to produce will turn out,” he says. “Start from day one with a leadership outlook, get that great culture in place with a great team and great leaders, and then it just becomes as simple as finding the right talent pipeline and building that up.”