COVER STORY: The U.N. of pork
MCINTOSH, Minn. -- Four young women are getting their education through distance learning. Make that long distance. They've come from as far as 5,000 miles away -- from Russia, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico -- to work and learn at David Rolf's hog ...
MCINTOSH, Minn. -- Four young women are getting their education through distance learning. Make that long distance.
They've come from as far as 5,000 miles away -- from Russia, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico -- to work and learn at David Rolf's hog farrowing operation at T & D Rolf Farms in northwestern Minnesota. All four are pursuing careers in some form of veterinary medicine.
"This is kind of an internship for them," Rolf says. "They get some credit for this in their home countries. Each has come to stay one year."
Building the business
T & D Rolf Farms is situated in the open plain between McIntosh and Oklee, Minn. Rolf runs the hog farm and his brother, Tim, runs a dairy farm nearby and raises feed grains for the two operations.
"I was always interested in pigs, and so Dad always used to give me pigs for my birthday," David Rolf says. "I just really enjoyed them."
Their dad once bought a Harvester silo from a farmer who had a farrowing unit. The farmer had planned to set up it up for his son to raise calves in.
"He said his sons were just a little too young to take care of it, so he wondered if we wanted to use it for farrowing," Rolf says.
The Rolfs did, so the family bought it, set it up and David began his hog business.
"We started out with feeder pigs," he says. "We bought them when everybody was selling out. They were saying, 'Feeder pigs are $15; why are you getting into pigs?'"
They bought them anyhow, and by the time they got a sow farrowed, feeder pigs were selling for $50.
"We said, 'Man, this is easy money,'" Rolf says.
He sold feeder pigs for a while and, eventually, his operation grew from 50 to 150 sows. Then he began to take notice of the fluctuations in the market prices.
"Prices would be good for a year and a half or so, and then all of a sudden, you wouldn't be making much," he says. "We could see where farrow to finish was good, so we built a finishing barn, which we still use for raising our replacement animals."
Today, Rolf's hog operation focuses solely on farrowing pigs. There usually are about 3,000 animals in the two large barns.
Because his operations grew, so did his need for more hands in the barn. After several frustrating attempts to find reliable local help, he decided to change course. About two years ago, a friend told him that he'd had brought in interns from abroad through an exchange program and that they had all worked out well for him.
"He couldn't speak highly enough of them," Rolf says.
After several conversations about the process, Rolf signed up with the same agency his friend had used and asked for some trainees. But after almost a year with that agency, he began to be frustrated when the U.S. embassies in each country repeatedly rejected his candidates' applications for special exchange visitor visas.
"So we would get one, and then that one would get rejected, and then we'd wait another two or three weeks and the next one would get rejected," he says. "And they don't tell you why."
The candidates were from Russia, Ukraine, Central America and South America.
The J-1 visas for nonimmigrants are issued to exchange students, trainees and visitors participating in programs that promote cultural exchange. Applicants must be sponsored by a private or government exchange program and are expected to leave the United States for their home country upon the completion of their program.
Finally, Rolf did find a candidate that was able to get a J-1 visa. But Rolf still had problems. The candidate apparently had relatives in California and had gone there for a week before he arrived in McIntosh.
"He was supposed to come directly here, but somehow, he scammed the system a little bit," Rolf says. "He arrived, and in three days, he was gone. He stayed two hours in the hog barn and he was out of here."
The intern claimed he'd been told the farm was going to be close to a big city, which was not the case.
By that time, Rolf had decided to look for another agency. He found Communicating for Agriculture Educational Programs based 100 miles south of his farm in Fergus Falls, Minn. CAEP is a worldwide organization with partners in 42 countries. It is the largest agricultural exchange agency in the United States and has successfully helped thousands of agricultural exchange workers gain employment in foreign countries.
Things quickly began to turn around for Rolf.
"Everyone that CAEP recommended has been accepted," he says. "They give us the names of the people and their applications to review."
The applicants are interviewed by a CAEP partner in the applicant's country. The partners also collect recommendations from the applicants' college professors regarding their English language ability and performance as a student.
"We get to see that interview. It's all written down," Rolf says. "Then they write some stuff personally about themselves and why they want to do this."
After applicants are accepted by Rolf, they must go to the nearest U.S. embassy to apply for the J-1 visa.
The first CAEP trainee to arrive at Rolf's operation was Eira Calderon from the Mexican state of Baja California. She arrived in September 2008 and will leave for home soon.
There were some adjustments she had to make after arriving. She says the most difficult was learning to speak English. Her new friends, the other trainees, helped ease those burdens.
"Because you do not speak English, you improve and you practice, and you are living with people that help you," Eira says. "I think that is a little bit more easy."
"I think initially, when the gal was living there by herself, she has just a little shyer personality and not very competent with English," Rolf says. "Even when I talked to her, she'd prefer that I would text her if she asked a question than tell her because she can read it better than she can understand hearing it. Even now, she'll usually text me, instead of coming to me."
It also was difficult being far from home, her friends and her family.
"Because of times you don't feel good or you feel sick and you are alone," she says. "To be alone in Christmas, or a birthday or Mother's Day, it's really hard, but now it's fine because we are together."
She attends the University of Baja California in Mexico and says she likes "everything about pork production.
"My career is about animal science," she says. "My college is for four years. I want to get a master's in reproduction."
She is proud to have been the first arrival at T & D Rolf Farms.
"I'm the first one here," she says, adding, "I'm the best one actually."
All four of the girls laugh at this.
"Our first trainee is going to be leaving now, in October. That's the first one we've ever had. She's been here a full year," Rolf says. "So we're pretty new at it and we're learning as we go."
Alla Kolodra is from Perm, Russia, near the Ural Mountains, where she studied for five years at the Perm State Agriculture Academy.
"I finished already, and here, my experience is practical," she says. "My profession is veterinary surgeon. I did many operations on farm animals. I work in many places -- in farms, in veterinary clinics. Here, I work; I want to improve my skills."
Ligia Neira is from Taquaral in the state of Sao Paolo, Brazil. She studied animal science at the Universidad de Lamasgeras, also for five years.
"I need my degree because I finished my studies," she says. "After, I study for my master's in nutrition."
The latest arrival is Alejandra Crespo Molina, whom everyone at the Minnesota farm calls "Alex." Alex was born in Palmira, Colombia, and lives in Cali, about 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
"I have been here only one month," she says. "I studied veterinary medicine at the University Cooperativa de Colombia. After this, I'm going to get my degree."
She plans to become a veterinarian when she returns to Colombia.
"They've been working in animal science in college, so now this is an extension," Rolf says. "This is kind of an internship. They get some credit for this in most of their colleges."
But in many discussions with them, Rolf has found that the academic value is only a part of why they came to America.
"It's a social thing, too, to see what goes on in America -- not just from the industry side of it," he says. "They're here, not just to get acclimated in the community, but also to see what life is like in the United States."
Having the four girls from four different cultures all here at one time has had its share of ups and downs.
Two of the girls are outgoing, while two are quieter. Only two of them, the Colombian girl and Mexican girl, share a native language, but they all share a house.
"It was a challenge at first. The personalities are all a little different," he says. "But that's part of living with roommates and working with different people."
He says that, at one point, he had to sit them all down and say, "Hey, you guys have got to get along here. This is what happens in any work environment. You don't have to be friends, but you do need to get along."
Things have smoothed out since then. The girls are helping each other with the English language and even go off on trips to nearby towns and cities together, trying out the restaurants and clubs, where they like to dance. On Alex's birthday, they all drove to Fargo, N.D.
"I am a really good at dancing salsa because in my city, Cali, they have championship dancers," Alex says. "It's really hard, but I have this in my blood, you know?"
They enjoy various kinds of movies and often watch the same ones together.
"We watch movies on the weekend, and we cry a lot," Alex says.
Alla loves sports. She plays basketball and volleyball, and likes to bicycle and ski.
"I love skiing. I skied in Russia for five years when I studied at the school," she says. "There is very much snow in winter, and every day, I am skiing."
She will see her first Minnesota winter this year. Eira, from the Baja Peninsula, already has been through one.
"Minnesota in the winter is horrible," she says, laughing. "But in the summer, it's beautiful."
Life in the United States
Sponsors have the choice of paying higher wages to the trainees and letting them pay their own rent or paying lower wages and providing living quarters for them. Rolf rents a house for the four girls in a nearby town.
"We live in a nice house together," Ligia says. "We have room for everyone and we have a beautiful kitchen."
Rolf provides use of bicycles and a car so they can commute to work and also get out and about in their off hours.
The visitors also are focused on safety. Rolf says that when Eira still was his only CAEP trainee, her first question was whether it was safe to walk around town.
"If I've gone to visit with them, that door is locked right behind me. Even here at work, they've got the keys out of the car and they lock the door."
But that's what they're accustomed to in their home countries. The home of one of the girls has bars on the windows and is surrounded by a high wall. She told Rolf that her bicycle once was stolen by someone who climbed over the wall, took it apart, threw the pieces over the wall and then climbed out after them.
It is therefore understandable that they remain cautious. They have met some of the local people, but refrain from the kind of open friendliness Americans enjoy in the country.
"They're just very cautious about meeting people because of what they're used to," Rolf says. "Even if they ride with me and I'm waving to everybody as we go into town, they say, 'What's that about?' We say hello to people in the store, and they just don't do that."
Still, they remain curious about living in the United States. If they spot someone or something that intrigues them, they want to know about it.
"They ask a lot of questions, instead of just going over and visiting with them," Rolf says. "And there's a lot of lot of the conversation at break time with my other workers and myself."
Only Alex seems unafraid of going out and meeting the locals, he says.
As for their work ethic, Rolf is happy with their performance overall.
"They dive in," he says.
One of the girls never had had a job before, so he spent some time coaching and building up her work ethic, he says. The time was well spent.
"I remember when she got her first paycheck, she said, 'It feels good to work and get paid for it,'" he says.
Two of the girls, Eira and Alla, are no strangers to work, he says.
"They're good workers. They just try and put an effort in, and they're reliable," he says.
A typical workday for the girls begins in the farrowing rooms.
When the piglets are 2 days old, the girls begin processing them. They castrate the males, give all of them shots, cut their tails short and apply identification tattoos. They wean the piglets at 21 days old and re-inseminate the sows five days after that.
Ligia has noticed some similarities and some differences in the production practices of her country and the U.S.
"In Brazil, the barns are opened by the tropical climate," she says. "Already here, the barns are fully enclosed by winter heating needs. And I see that we have the same problems of production in all countries of the world."
Efficient production requires a high percentage of live, healthy piglets at farrowing. One of the girls' jobs is to help the sows farrow if there are any problems.
"We must be constantly checking farrowing," Eira says. "Early intervention is important because most losses of piglets at farrowing are due to stillborns pigs."
Good for them
Ligia worked with swine during most of her time in college. Putting that into a business context in the U.S. is providing her a lot of new information she can use when she heads home.
"I now have the opportunity to learn a trade, about production and meeting deadlines," she says.
Aside from his imported work force, Rolf employs two full-time and two part-time workers. On payday, their income is calculated differently than that of the nonresident girls.
"The girls have a different type of tax system," he says. "They don't pay Social Security because they're never going to get it, but federal tax is higher for them, like 110 percent of normal tax."
Despite the added time it has taken to get the girls here and situated comfortably, Rolf says the experience has been positive.
"I think it's been very interesting and fun to see people that are interested in learning about what we're doing here," he says. "I'm helping them out a little bit, and they're helping me out at the same time, I guess. It's a win-win for both of us."
From Ligia's point of view, her stay in Minnesota is providing much more than just work.
"I feel that I'm a more complete person because I realized a dream," she says.
112 E. Lincoln Ave., Fergus Falls, Minn.; Phone: 218-739-3241; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org