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Published August 04, 2014, 09:28 AM

Irrigators get help from abroad, switch to sprinklers

All sugar beets grown for Sidney Sugars Inc. are irrigated, and that traditionally has meant some hard physical labor. But that presents a problem because labor is increasingly hard to come by in the midst of the big Bakken oilfield boom.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FAIRVIEW, Mont. — All sugar beets grown for Sidney Sugars Inc. are irrigated, and that traditionally has meant some hard physical labor. But that presents a problem because labor is increasingly hard to come by in the midst of the big Bakken oilfield boom.

More farmers are slowly turning to center-pivot irrigation from the traditional gravity flood irrigation, which still accounts for roughly 75 to 80 percent of the acres. Some are going outside of the country to fill labor needs.

Terry Cayko of Fairview, Mont., says he’s put up two pivots and has a third going in this fall. Growers are getting older, Cayko says, and switching systems saves a little of the really tough work.

“More pivots are coming in all of the time,” Cayko says. “It’s harder and harder to get anyone committed to doing flood irrigation work.”

Oilfield workers must be at least 18 years old, so the local annual labor force for irrigation often comes from younger people.

The cost of putting in a pivot is about $1,000 an acre, but the Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-shares about 50 percent, largely because the water is more efficiently used with sprinkler systems.

Most farmers, however, haven’t made the change because of the cost, or because they’ve found creative labor solutions.

Exchange program

Scott Buxbaum, 52, lives in McKenzie County, N.D., but with a Fairview, Mont., address. He farms with his wife, Anita, their daughter Kayla, 27, and her husband, Blaine, who also works in the oil business.

For 14 years, Buxbaum has hired foreign student trainees, all in their 20s. Initially the trainees came from the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee International program, but for the past 10 years, Buxbaum has been working through Communicating for Agriculture educational exchanges, arranged from Fergus Falls, Minn.

CA tries to match intern interests with the farmers, Buxbaum says. The interns, or trainees, are here on J-1 visa programs for cultural exchanges. If they want to come back on a work visa, they could come on the H-2A agricultural worker program, but few do that. Buxbaum has hosted interns from Denmark, Finland, Brazil, South Africa, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Mexico and France. Most come in the middle of March or early April and go home in mid-November after taking a trip around the U.S.

The exchange program is good for both parties.

The Buxbaums pay a monthly salary and provide the interns with a separate house and vehicle to drive. The trainees pay for most of their own travel and food while part of the Buxbaum farm.

“We try to bring them into our family because we’re their family, basically, when they’re here,” Buxbaum says. “We’ve gotten to be very good friends with some of them.”

Buxbaum raises a total of about 1,200 acres of crops — sugar beets, malt barley and spring wheat. His farm has been investing in purchasing land they’d been renting, so he is sticking to flood irrigation, which requires more labor than sprinkler systems.

He says he needs help moving irrigation pipe, although rains came through June to make for a relatively easy season.

The trainees will do some of the combining, which could start by the first week of August.

“They’ll be involved in everything,” he says. “During sugar beet harvest they’ll drive the trucks. With the Bakken oil deal, it’s very difficult to find employees for harvest. That’s one nice thing about having three workers on your farm. You’ve got three trucks you’re taking care of.”

Irrigation season

The irrigation season was just starting in early July when Agweek stopped by. Buxbaum has about 14 sugar beet fields this year, averaging 20 acres on his farm. Some of the fields are irrigated up to five times until September, while other fields might be irrigated twice, depending on the type of soil.

During the heavy irrigation season, his crews might be irrigating six to 10 fields at a time. Trained crews can change a field in 15 minutes. It takes two hours to change all of the fields, and that’s done two to three times a day. It’s a lot of work, but also an experience, say two of the trainees.

Daniel Sitaru, 24, of Romania, finished university agricultural studies and came to Sidney on March 15. Back in Romania, his father farms and administers 5,000 acres, employs 30 people and grows corn, wheat, barley, canola and sunflowers. Fifteen are field workers and the rest are accountants.

“My father doesn’t want to fire them — yet,” Sitaru says, smiling. “In my region, we don’t have sugar beets. I came to have a life experience and to have a good start of my agricultural career. No one required me to do it. This was my choice.”

Victor Mazutti, 23, is from central Mexico, near Mexico City. His family milks 180 cows and raises feed crops, including corn, alfalfa, barley, oats and grass. He is a student in a state university of Mexico State in Zumpango.

Mazutti initially came to the Lee Settingsgard farm in Edmore, N.D., but because of excessive rains and prevented-planting acres, there wouldn’t be enough work, so he was reassigned to Buxbaum in Sidney.

“This is my last semester of the school,” Mazutti says. “I had to do professional practices in my university, so I decided to come here to have a better experience in a foreign country, and a life experience, too, with a foreign culture.”

Buxbaum thinks that if the labor situation remains tight, more farmers might consider the foreign trainee programs.

“But it’s something that needs to fit into your operation. If you don’t have much family, find help somewhere. Hopefully, we’re training them, teaching them something they want to learn.”