Interview with Andrew & Williamson

Andrew & Williamson’s Amalia Lommel has been deeply involved in agricultural human resources issues during her 24 years at the company. As the Director of Social Responsibility, she's helped lead cultural change initiatives as well as the company's involvement with EFI and Fair Trade USA.

A&W grows berries in California and Mexico and grows tomatoes and cucumbers in Mexico. Amalia shared with us some of the insights she's gained as A&W blazes new trails in human resources management.

What are you most proud of as an agricultural employer?

I’m most proud of the culture change we’ve instituted that’s based on transparency and clarity—where people can feel empowered to speak up and make a change. We want our team members to feel that they are not just a number on a list, but that they are an important part of the supply chain. It is about getting people to talk about things and make decisions. We're not the only ones that are doing that, a lot of companies are doing similar work.

How did you do that?

We initiated some social programs in 2009 and 2010 where we started learning what farmworkers wanted and needed--what their hopes and aspirations were. We went out to the fields to start talking to people and learning from people. [The culture change was] not something we just dreamed up. It came out of about talking to people and listening—more than anything it was listening. When they said, for example, "I’d love to learn english or learn how to read and write," then we figure out together, “how do we get there?.” If they reach their goals they elevate their quality of life, that makes for a more engaged workforce. All of it started from just listening.

What’s been the most positive change you’ve seen in your workforce in the last few years?

Communication. When we first started having group meetings with the general workforce, we asked them to speak up, but most people stayed quiet. We asked if there was anything they would change, and there was just silence. The women wouldn’t even look up, they had their faces covered. Now, if you go to our farms, they look you in the eye, they answer, they speak and give you their opinion on how the culture change has impacted their work environment. The communication between between supervisors, top management, and team members on the farm has all improved.

What keeps you up at night as an ag employer?

There are certain situations that are outside my ability to control or affect. For example there’s regulation that, as an employer, you have to abide by, but it hurts our business. I know that the people that sit down and write these bills mean well, but the problem is that by passing these laws it decreases the employers’ ability to hire more people because we’re constrained by added costs. I feel like I cannot make a difference in that, and I want to give the benefit of good employment to more people.

What’s the most important reason that workers return to your farms year after year?

That questions has been asked of the members of the team, and they say because it is consistent work and they’re treated with dignity and respect. They know what to expect.

What is something you’d like to understand better about your employees?

I’d like to understand better what goals they have. What do they need and what do they want to make their lives better? For example, about two months ago we were sitting down at a meeting where some top officials from Costco came to our farm. We had 8-10 team members at each table, and one of the top Costco people asked them that question. One person responded, “I was born in Washington State, but I moved to Mexico at a young age and didn’t come back until a year ago. I really want to learn English. So I bought a Rosetta stone.” After realizing the team member had spent $450 and was eager to learn English, we started talking with Costco about whether they could get a wholesale price on those and make it available for more people. So huge impact can come from one person that was given the opportunity to share about their dreams and goals. They know what they want and need, and they need to be given a chance to speak up.

What’s an opportunity for improving employee retention and satisfaction that you’re most excited about?

That would have to be with year round employment opportunities. We’re very seasonal in the different regions. We have 7-8 different growing regions in the US and Mexico. In each region, those employees get laid off until the next year…if they come back, that is. If in every region we could give them an opportunity for year round employment by collaborating with other farms, that would be awesome. Through Good Farms, we’re actively seeking a way to achieve that. We’re seeking partnerships for locally grown produce in each region, packed under the Good Farms label if they can meet our quality, social and food safety standards. The workforce would be shared year-round among all the growers.

If you had a magic wand to address one specific public policy issue that affects you as an ag employer, what would it be and what would your solution be?

It would be a guest worker program for immigration. What we have now with H2A doesn’t affect the people already in the US that are willing and able to work. It would be good to get legislation passed so that people that are currently able to stay and work can do so and newcomers can come too. As you know, US citizens don’t want to be picking strawberries or lettuce because their opportunities are so vast. So we need that workforce to keep food prices down. That legislation is so important to keep the supermarket shelves full.

What do you wish prospective candidates knew about your company?

I wish that they knew that we are a great place to work, but my hope is that those words don’t come directly from us, but rather from a reliable source that they trust.

What do you wish customers and potential customers knew about you as an ag employer?

That we have a very good social responsibility and food safety program. That we are available to serve them as their factory floor. It isn’t about them saying when do you have your next crop, and we say “March to June.” That’s an historical way of making plans. What we do now is that you tell me what you need, what size, what specs and we become your factory floor. In that way, we’re building a partnership together.