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Published August 20, 2014, 10:51 AM

South Africans learn new farming techniques, enjoy life in ND

This year, five Lankin, N.D.-area farms are hosting a total of a dozen young international farm workers, including 10 from South Africa, one from Brazil and from the Eastern European country of Moldova.

By: Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service

LANKIN, N.D. — Cameron Bina was still in college in 1992 when his father, Dennis, hired a farm worker who traveled from France to help plant and harvest their crops.

A year later, when Cameron started farming, the Binas turned what had been something of a novelty into an annual family tradition that has spread throughout the community.

This year, five Lankin, N.D.-area farms are hosting a total of a dozen young international farm workers, including 10 from South Africa, one from Brazil and from the Eastern European country of Moldova.

“It’s been good,” Cameron Bina says. “They’re good workers. We’ve had success with the program.”

Bina is participating in MAST International, a University of Minnesota international exchange program that combines a practical, hands-on learning experience in agriculture with classroom experience. Started in 1949, MAST, which originally was called the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee program, has served more than 6,000 young people from more than 80 countries.

For Bina, MAST and other international internship programs have provided much more than good workers.

He met his future wife, Estelle, on Easter Sunday in 2010, when she arrived from South Africa to work on the Bina farm.

“I drove tractors. I watched the kids,” she says. “I never left. Winter’s a little cold, but it’s good here.”

She and Cameron were married in 2012. Together, they have a 15-month-old daughter, Ashley. Bina also has two other children, Lilly and Britton.

Farm hands

This year, the Binas are hosting two South African workers, Andre’ du Preez and Dylan Nobbs, both 19.

At home in South Africa, they both work on the du Preez family farm, which includes about 4,000 acres of cropland, growing corn, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, pinto and garbanzo beans. The du Preez family also raises cattle and sheep and operates a 15,000-acre game farm and family resort — with impala, kudu, eland and buffalo — hosting tours and hunts.

“I’ve been there for five years,” Nobbs says of the du Preez farm. “It’s almost like they adopted me.”

Workers at the du Preez farm also deal with plenty of farm pests, including venomous species of snakes, such as rattlesnakes, black mambas and cobras.

While the young African workers are quite familiar with crops in the Red River Valley, they’re gaining experience they can’t find at home.

“We’ve learned a lot about new methods of farming, how to make farming easier,” Nobbs says.

“This spring was the first time I used an air seeder,” du Preez says. “It was an adventure. I was nervous at first, to get the rows straight. Farming’s an adventure here.”

In South Africa, farming is much more labor intensive, with large commercial farms employing scores or even hundreds of wage earners.

“About 90 percent of the people working on the farms have no education. They’re earning wages,” says Johan Bieterse, another young farm worker from South Africa. He adds that many farm laborers do further their education and move on to other pursuits.

More seasons

Most of the young South African workers in Walsh County now know others who have been here before. Many of them come back year after year.

Gerhard LaGrange, who works on another Lankin-area farm, has been here for 13 years.

“I live here now, for the most part,” he says.

Lankin is a town of about 100 in Walsh County, located about 65 miles northwest of Grand Forks.

“There’s a lot more opportunity here,” says Bieterse, 26, who is in his sixth year here. “The money’s good, the work is good, and the people are nice.”

In northern South Africa, where they live, their monthly wages total about 3,000 to 3,500 South African rand, or about $350 in U.S. currency, du Preez says.

In the U.S., if they work seven-day weeks during the busiest months, they can earn as much as 17 times that amount, according to Bina, who also provides lodging and some meals for the international workers.

“That’s why we enjoy it so much,” Nobbs says. “I hope I can come back next year.”