ADA, Minn. — In a normal year, Communicating for Agriculture Educational Programs — a Fergus Falls, Minn., nonprofit — hosts 1,200 to 1,800 paid farm interns in the U.S. and Canada, working on farms in cultural and agricultural internships.
Since 1978, more than 40,000 visitors have been on U.S. farms because of the program. But because of COVID-19, hundreds of farmers are left in limbo without help, says Greg Smedsrud, the program’s managing partner.
But 2020 has been anything but normal.
In February, the CA personnel started to hear that U.S. consulates in intern countries were turning down intern applicants. Some trainees already in the U.S. were concerned about getting home.
In March 22, President Donald Trump suspended the J-1 program.
“Immediately the State Department closed down all of the consulates in allowing anyone else to come in,” Smedsrud says. (A U.S. District Court in northern California on Sept. 2 ruled to repeal it, but it is not clear whether that will stick.)
The U.S. Department of Labor, has categorized holders of H-2A temporary agricultural worker visas as essential workers, but not the J-1 educational visas, despite their hosts counting on them for labor.
The CA agricultural intern program was shut down — and without discussions with stakeholders.
"We were shocked, actually,” Smedsrud recalls.
From 4-H to pigs
His trainees have come Brazil, Columbia, Ukraine and the Philippines. This year’s trainee was Raymund Joves, who lives in the Filipino city of Camiling, and graduated in animal science at his province’s Tarlac Agricultural University.
Joves, 24, says he came to learn hog farming technology on a small, but comprehensive hog enterprise. He says he pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the culture: “Every people that I pass they say, 'hi and good morning,'” he says.
Roesch, 55, grew up on a Red River Valley farm and is rare for his livestock enterprise. He wanted to farm but his father didn’t have sugar beet stock or a lot of land. At age 12, Roesch started with four pigs in a 4-H project. At age 14, he borrowed $16,000 for a hog barn. He survived hog market cycles (including 8-cent-per-pound pigs in 1997) and became more efficient.
“About the only way I could make it work was build more (efficient) barns, get more pigs,” he says.
For 20 years, Roesch farm has sold a load of about 185 head every two to three weeks, usually trucking them to the John Morrell (Smithfield) plant at Sioux Falls, S.D. (In April, Roesch was forced to sell about 900 animals directly to consumers through seven area locker plants, because of the Smithfield shutdowns from COVID-19.)
“It’s a lot of physical work here," Roesch says. “(If) a 280-pound pig, getting chased into the semi, turns around and decides to come back at Raymund, he has to grab it by the head and flip it over. We don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
That means there will be no one replace Joves.
Joves flew back to the Philippines on Sept. 29, where he hopes to get a job with an agricultural company and help his father — a retired banker — on a small hobby hog farm. His Filipino girlfriend separately was a CA horticulture internship North Carolina.
With soybean harvest starting at the end of September, Roesch planned to fill in with some area high school kids.
“It’ll definitely be a challenge. It’s hard to find local help that’s qualified that has the work ethic," Roesch says.
“CA” initially stood for the “Creamery Association.” Greg Smedsrud’s father, Milt, who grew up on a dairy farm at Dalton, Minn., sold group health insurance to more than 100 small creameries and farmer-members across the state.
In 1972, the CA changed names to the “Communicating for Agriculture” moniker — a nonprofit for rural advocacy and health issues with up to 100,000 members. In 1979, the group started hosting exchange programs with Scandinavian countries, employing J-1 visa holders and teaching agricultural techniques and culture.
Greg Smedsrud, who initially attained a master’s degree in music, in 1982 pursued a career in computer software marketing with stints at Apple Computer, NeXT Computer, and Novell, before returning to Minnesota in 2012 to work for CA.
“Other than the U.S., all other (higher) agricultural education programs have a one-year required internship — a practicum — to receive their degree in agronomy or agriculture, ” Smedsrud says.
Trainees spend up to 12 months as part of their higher education. They live and work at a wide range of farms — grain crops, livestock, horticulture and grape and wine.
The CA culture is family-like.
Smedsrud invites all of its trainees to come to the Smedsrud farm in rural Dalton, for a weekend at the farm in late July. About 200 make the trip — some fly from the coasts — and stay in a campground on the farm, equipped with stages and buildings, for the purpose.
The CA trainees typically march down Main Street in Ashby, Minn., for “Appreciation Days” celebration, waving flags from their home countries. The campground was quiet this year.
Looking ahead, CA is doing “aggressive recruitment” for 2021, hoping there is going to be a change. It seems likely by March, Smedsrud says.
Smedsrud is hopeful: “We know this: People will want to travel, just like people want our social lives, here. People will want to continue to travel, will want to have experiences in other countries. I think that’s what we’re looking for, making sure that happens.”
It is not uncommon for host families to still be in communication with an intern some 30 years later, with children of interns named after hosts. Numerous CA trainees have become high-level ag officials in their home countries and captains of industry. The program is simply, “important to the world,” Smedsrud says.