The labor force in the United States continues to evolve and change with advances in technology and shifts toward more urban locations. These trends have worsened the already serious shortage of available farm labor in agricultural areas, and show no signs of abating. According to a survey from USA Farm Labor, farmers rate the difficulty of finding local workers as an 8/10. Furthermore, more than 50% of survey respondents say they were unable to find any local workers at all, in spite of their recruitment efforts. About 41% reported that they were only able to find and hire 1-3 local workers.
One solution that seems to be working for many farmers is importing qualified and eager workers from overseas. These seasonal workers travel to the U.S. to work under the H-2A Visa program. The majority of these workers are currently being sourced from South Africa. The reason South African workers are a good match for American farms is that the growing seasons are opposite. Young men who have or want experience working on a farm can spend South Africa’s winter months earning income in the United States.
That nation also teaches all students English, which greatly reduces language barriers when hired workers come to America.
Farms in South Africa have fairly modern implements, which helps them quickly learn to operate American style equipment.
“These guys are usually really good at fixing any breakdowns,” Says South Dakota alfalfa farmer Mike Brosnan. “In South Africa, it’s difficult to find repair materials and really hard to get repair parts in a timely manner. It’s not like here, where we’re 15 minutes from the nearest John Deere shop.”
Brosnan’s workers come to the U.S. through the nation’s H-2A program, which was implemented in 1986 to provide temporary, seasonal farm labor from foreign workers. Typically, the process for securing workers is lengthy, complex, and expensive.
“There are people across the U.S. who help farmers like us complete the paperwork process,” Brosnan said. “We’ve used at least three different companies to do that. Currently, we work with a woman in North Dakota who knows how to complete the process. Her husband brings South African workers to his farm, and she has a contact in South Africa. You have to have a contact
there in order to complete the visa process.”
Generally, it’s February when Brosnan determines how many helpers he’ll need for the season. He must submit applications for workers about eight weeks in advance of when he expects to need them.
Most workers who apply to fill the visa requests are 24 or 25 years old. The oldest worker Brosnan brought over was in his early 50s.
In addition to traveling costs, Brosnan and other farmers bringing in temporary workers from South Africa pay U.S. fees and fees in South Africa as part of the visa process. The farmer bringing workers to his operation must provide housing but isn’t required to provide daily meals. While workers with an H-2A visa are in America, they aren’t allowed to work for anyone except the farmer who completed the visa application. When the season ends, they are required to
return to their own country.
“One of our South African workers came back every year for about eight years,” Brosnan said. “Most come back for an average of five years.”
Brosnan is not at all opposed to hiring American workers. He still runs “Help Wanted” ads every year. Legally, if an American worker applied for a job on his farm, Brosnan would have to hire them.
“Generally, I don’t receive any applications from American workers,” Brosnan said. “The South African workers we’ve brought over differ from some of the employees we’ve had in the past in that they are dependable. They always show up on time and hardly complain about anything. They’re here to earn money, and they know how to hustle. There’s always an exception out there, but most of them have a very good work ethic.”
Brosnan doesn’t have any real issues with America’s H-2A visa process, although he believes streamlining it would make the entire process easier.
In the beginning, Brosnan and a handful of other farmers in southeast South Dakota were the only ones bringing in South African workers. Currently, the practice is much more widespread because farmers have had more difficulty securing seasonal workers from the region.