Vineyard Labor Management Practices

Gregorio Billikopf, extension advisor/author, leaves tips before retirement

by Jane Firstenfeld
gregorio billikopf
Gregorio Billikopf is retiring to Chile after a long career with the University of California, specializing in agriculture labor management.
Berkeley, Calif.—After 34 years as a University of California extension advisor specializing in agriculture labor management, Gregorio Billikopf is retiring. He plans to relocate to a dairy farm in Chile, his native country, where he will continue to write and publish advice under his newly emeritus status.

As he prepared to leave California, Billikopf sent Wines & Vines some tips summing up what he’d learned in his long career. “I wanted to leave some suggestions for farm employers who want to stay competitive in an increasingly challenging world market, based on the best practices I have seen in my career as a labor management farm advisor,” he said.

“We have seen a lot of improved practices in the field of agricultural labor management,” Billikopf commented. Decades ago “A fruit grower suggested that the best way of getting crew members’ attention was to splash a worker’s defective fruit lug on the ground—hopefully spilling as much red juice from the crushed berries as possible.” Of course such an action serves only to upset the employee and all of his friends on the picking team.

Billikopf has authored a guide filled with more practical advice; his book, Agricultural Labor Management, is available for free download .

Best practices from the source
Some of Billikopf’s suggestions include:

Test employees before hiring: “Hiring the right person is one of the most important management decisions you make.” Employers who consistently hire the best candidates test before hiring. Billikopf recommends short, practical tests that measure specific needed tasks (e.g. pruning). Test potential supervisors and managers as well. “Avoid hiring based just on an interview,” he stressed.

Incentive pay: “The most effective incentives reward individual rather than group effort.” Paying for performance rewards productivity and quality work. To be sustainable, the pay method should benefit both the enterprise and the employees in the long run. Reward employee efforts for what they control.

On the other hand, Billikopf termed hourly pay plus piece-rate bonus a “perverse incentive.” “Workers get less pay per effort with increased productivity.…At first, there may be some employees who think this is a wonderful approach, as the employer is guaranteeing them a certain base wage. With time, workers come to see the negative aspects of this incentive pay approach.”

Quality Control: Calibrate against a standard. Whenever possible, include quality control in the incentive pay reward formula, so supervisors are not at odds with workers. Lack of consistency demoralizes workers. Supervisors and crew should look at tasks such as pruning or thinning and agree on when they are properly completed.

Maintain consistency with employee discipline: “Discipline needs to be carried out without giving offense.…We are dealing with people, not machines.” Train supervisors to avoid shortcuts in interpersonal relations: “It usually means paying later, with interest,” Billikopf said. “If you don’t have time to be polite right now, and take a shortcut, you’ll have to apologize for it. Do it right the first time.”

Learn to use negotiated performance appraisal (NPA): Prior to a review, both supervisor and subordinate prepare individual lists of what the subordinate does well, has recently improved in and areas where more improvement is still needed. The subordinate is asked to provide suggestions of how to improve in weak areas.

“NPA helps improve communication and productivity while permitting the subordinate to save face,” Billikopf said. It requires the supervisor to celebrate successes with the subordinate. “Traditional appraisals put the supervisor in the position of being a judge instead of a coach.

“NPA promotes candid dialogue.…It encourages the parties to speak about vital matters that are seldom addressed. While dialogue does not always constitute an agreement, it does allow parties to make more considered decisions that help prevent conflict.”

When conflicts do arise, use party-directed mediation (PDM): Meet separately with employees who are involved in a conflict, before bringing them together. “In separate preliminary meetings, employees can vent frustrations and be coached in effective ways to respond, without defensiveness. During the joint session, the mediator sits apart from those involved, making it clear that the conversation and solutions will come from them.” Avoid letting the mediator become the arbitrator.

Decision-making meetings: Conduct these in a way that lets all participants feel free to give ideas and safely express differences of opinion. Make sure to find solutions that address “extraordinary situations” and what might be done when these arise.

“Often, workers come in contact with potential problems first. Early detection can save time and expense. Meetings are held to inform people about policies or operations, gather information, conduct training, resolve problems or make decisions,” Billikopf said.

“If someone shows a lot of emotion in a comment, it is because they have an important need or fear related to the issue. This is an opportunity to better understand each other.”

Create a sustainable workplace
In Billikopf’s career as an ag labor advisor, he has developed and promoted practices that contribute to stability and sustainability in the workforce. 

“It is vital to promote a culture where workers will have the confidence to give opinions that challenge those of their co-workers and those of their supervisors as well,” he said.

“That’s why it’s important to promote from the beginning a culture where workers have the confidence to give opinions that challenge those of their co-workers and supervisors. Once a decision is made, of course, all should work to help make its realization a success.”

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