Little Things Count in Hog Production

Clare Schilling knows all about multitasking. Ten days after her baby was born the first week of September (joining two other children, ages 3 and 5), she was back to work in the family’s Illinois hog operation. It’s not that she doesn’t trust her employees—in fact, the opposite is true. She wants employees to feel empowered to make decisions. That’s why she focuses on the little things that can make a big difference for the operation as well as her employees.

Clare, 33 and her brother, Drew, 30, are the next-generation leaders of their family’s hog and row-crop operation in New Athens, Ill., owned by their parents, Ludger and Beth Schilling. The brother and sister team also own Sis-Bro Farm near Sparta, Ill. Together, more than 8,000 sows produce about 190,000 pigs per year. In addition, the two operations produce corn and soybeans for the hog business (see sidebar on page 14).

Each morning, she greets employees in Spanish and makes sure they have what they need for the day. Between the two hog production sites, she manages 29 Hispanic employees, and although she admits her Spanish is far from perfect, she’s become “barn-fluent” after two years of night classes and immersion in the language for the past decade.

“Learning Spanish has been a huge asset to our farm,” Clare says. “We have had much higher employee retention and I have been able to implement a more stable, efficient and tiered team, which takes a huge load off my shoulders.”

“I am constantly learning new words, and these guys are so patient with me,” she adds. “I know I probably speak at a first-grade level, but they appreciate I learned their language and give me the respect of a manager.”

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Clare is anxious to reach a higher level of fluency so she can interact with employees on a more personal level. She knows connecting in this way will help overcome cultural barriers.

Those cultural differences can’t be overlooked, she explains. For many employees, English is a second language, so she helps them become integrated into the community, working with school personnel and healthcare professionals. In several cases, she has husbands and wives working side by side in the operation, and now some of their children work there on weekends and in the summers.

Her attention to the little things has helped her improve employee retention. Her top three managers (breeding, farrowing and maintenance) have been with her since 2008, when the farm began full production, and her middle-managers have been with the farm for at least five years.

Clare admits it is harder to keep general employees, partly because the work isn’t suitable for everyone, and also because the farm’s proximity to St. Louis makes it more difficult to retain some employees.

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