Solomon-area farmer Mark Pettijohn sorely needed a reliable hand to the point that he enlisted the services of modern technology.

As it turned out, Dustin Conrad was on a quest of his own in Donovan, Illinois, to find just the right farmer in need.

Through an online business, Hansen Agri-placement, a Grand Island, Nebraska, company that specializes in matching agricultural employers with workers, the two men forged a professional bond that they insist has staying power.

“I am not joking. I love my job,” said Conrad, 27. “I couldn’t be happier. I’d been looking for a job like this for 10 years, and now I get up every day and put a smile on my face.”

Calling Hansen Agri-placement “the eHarmony of farm employees,” Pettijohn, whose northeast Saline County operation is called Kansas JAG, is thrilled with Conrad.

“He’s been a godsend,” Pettijohn said. “He is rich with skills, knowledge and enthusiasm. We make a very good team.”

A tryout

Conrad said he’d been searching for the right fit.

“I was helping my uncle farm and I started a tree-cutting, trimming and removal business. It wasn’t growing. We weren’t making as much money as we’d hoped.”

Married to Elizabeth, whom he’d met through FarmersOnly.com, Conrad surfed the Internet and was drawn to the Hansen site. It wasn’t his first visit.

“I’d been placed with them before up in Nebraska, but it didn’t work out,” Conrad said. “I called them and they said, ‘Well, we’ve got one (farmer) we really think you’d be a good match for.’ They called Mark. We talked on the phone and set up a time for my family and me to travel out here for a week.”

Pettijohn put the Conrads up in a hotel, and Dustin agreed to work for two days. He stayed longer.

“We cleaned out milo bins, some of the hardest work on a farm,” Pettijohn said.

While he had scheduled two other young men to audition, Pettijohn told his father, Alan, that Conrad was the one.

“He was so involved to see the project to its conclusion. He came up with ideas and effective solutions and aggressive techniques to get at a problem,” Pettijohn said. “Two other guys came after, one of them local, but they couldn’t beat Dustin.”

Pettijohn offered “respectable hours” with benefits, a large home to live in, and a good salary, for this gem in work boots.

He was willing to pay a fee equal to one-fourth of Dustin’s first-year salary – nearly $10,000 – to Hansen Agri-placement. “I thought it was very expensive until he was here for one day,” Pettijohn said.

New way to hire

They have so far proved to be a good match, in part because of the “stability” in Conrad’s file, said Kerry Glandt, an agricultural recruiter for Hansen Agri-placement.

While this form of joining worker with farmer is rare in these parts, according to Pettijohn and Conrad, Glandt speculates that online matching in agricultural fields might account for 20 to 30 percent of the hires. With agriculture becoming more sophisticated, he figures that percentage will grow.

Farms are getting larger and there are fewer people working the land. More high school students today are two and three generations removed from the farm.

“The technology of auto-steer, monitors and variable rates (of planting and applying fertilizer) has added a higher degree of knowledge needs,” Glandt said.

Employers demand an advanced skill set and good references, he said.

With a strong set of attributes and references to back it up, Glandt said, “You can pretty much go anywhere.”

Ag headhunter

With 13 workers in Grand Island, Hansen Agri-placement opened there in 1959 when founder Jack Hansen’s tools were note cards and a telephone.

The website touts all kinds of work, from positions at grain elevators to feedlots and sod farms. Employers need ranch hands, cowboys and dairy workers.

There are jobs in every field from garden nursery manager to product engineers.

Positions range from entry level to CEO of a large company, minimum wage to more than $250,000 a year.

“We try to evaluate a person’s skill set, something about personality and background,” Glandt said. “We’re making sure they have the skills and experience that the employer is looking for.”

Early on, he guessed, people might have been willing to move only to the next county, but today they’re more mobile and would take a job 300 to 400 miles from home.

Fax machines, cellphones, computers and the Internet have helped the placement industry evolve.

“We’ve had several instances where we placed a father and now we’re working with his son,” Glandt said. “There are other companies that dally with agriculture, and a half-dozen to a dozen who make it their niche.”

A good match

Since signing on with Pettijohn on March 15, 2014, Conrad has joined the Solomon Fire Department and his family – with two young children – is settling into that community.

They attend church in Abilene.

He enjoys the work and relishes being wanted and appreciated.

“Mark is a good, honest, respectable person. He has a nice farm, good equipment, and he’s a responsible farmer,” Conrad said. “He pays a good, fair wage and wants me to be happy and successful. You’re not just another guy here from 8 to 5, doing all the junk work that he doesn’t want to do. He’s very equal to his hired man and understanding of having days off.”

Pettijohn is progressive and curious about trying other farming methods, such as cover crops, companion crops, strip tillage, no tillage, and using other varieties of seed, chemicals and additives.

Willing to change

“He’s willing to change. It keeps my job entertaining,” Conrad said. “It’s not the same old stuff every day.”

Pettijohn and Conrad are similar on the farm and in their faith.

They even watch each other’s children.

“We’re very much alike,” Pettijohn said. “I consider him a member of my family.”

It’s cool to be high-tech, Conrad said, but what’s special is that his boss is grounded with a good work ethic and everyday manners.

“Mark does it on a daily basis. He says ‘Hey, thank you for what you’ve done today’ and that thank-you goes a long way with me,” Conrad said. “I’m kind of an old-school guy.”

Tim Unruh is a veteran agricultural journalist with the Salina Journal. He grew up on a diversified farm near Deerfield, the son of a grain elevator manager and a schoolteacher. Email: tunruh@salina.com.