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North Dakota farms find labor in far-off lands

NAPOLEON, N.D. -- In the area of South Africa where Reinhardt Weygandt grew up, farming gets done by hand. Few farmers have tractors, and something like a post-hole digger would be a luxury.

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Reinhardt Weygandt stands on the farm he and his brother bought south of Napoleon, N.D. The Weygandts came to the U.S. on training and work visas for several years before getting their green cards. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

NAPOLEON, N.D. - In the area of South Africa where Reinhardt Weygandt grew up, farming gets done by hand. Few farmers have tractors, and something like a post-hole digger would be a luxury.

"At home, each hole for a post, you have to dig by hand," he says, imagining building two to three miles of fence. "It takes you three, four months to get a fence built."

That's part of the reason farmers in South Africa are interested in coming to the U.S. to work. They get to experience new equipment, techniques and technologies, and with a favorable exchange rate, they can bring home plenty of money.

It's been about eight years since Weygandt came to the U.S. on a J1 visa, or a training visa. Later trips required an H2A visa, which allows one to work in agriculture on a seasonal basis.

But in 2013, Weygandt decided to make the U.S. his home permanently. He still works for the employer that brought him here a few years back, but now, green cards in hand, he and his brother also have 26 acres, some heifers, a couple of horses and a herd of Dorper sheep.

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Far from being the only foreign-born farm laborer around, Weygandt is among a growing number of people who hail from outside U.S. borders who come to this country looking for work in agriculture. Through a variety of non-immigrant visa programs and regular immigration, the number of foreign hands that keep American agriculture moving continues to grow.

Looking for help

Katie Heger and her husband have been farming near Underwood, N.D., since 1998. In all those years, they've advertised locally for farm labor. But they get few responses and even fewer qualified candidates.

The Hegers raise soybeans, corn, wheat and small amounts of pinto beans or field peas. The size of their operation requires hired labor. But no one in the area wants the job.

So, the Hegers have turned to the other side of the globe to find their employees. Using the H2A visa for agricultural workers, the Hegers have found reliable, hard-working employees to fill the gaps the local labor market doesn't fill.

The H2A program continues to grow. In fiscal year 2016, 134,368 agricultural workers from other countries came to the U.S., compared to 16,011 workers in 1997.

Southwest of Jamestown, N.D., Terry Entzminger needs nearly 30 employees to operate his 850-head dairy, with corresponding grain farm. About a third of his workforce comes from his family and a third from locals. For the other third, he relies on foreign labor from a variety of sources.

The H2A program the Hegers use doesn't work well for Entzminger. H2A, he explains, is for seasonal work, and milking cows "is the same on Christmas Day as it is on the Fourth of July." He's had people on H2A visas work on the grain side of his operation, but on the dairy side, he relies on other programs.

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J1 visas allow people to come to the U.S. as part of work-and-study-based exchange visitor programs, and TN visas, a part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, allow professionals in certain occupations from Canada and Mexico to come to the U.S. to work in prearranged business activities.

Entzminger has had veterinarians or veterinarians in training, among other professionals, come to work for him while on J1 or TN visas. While they may not be qualified to become a veterinarian in the U.S. due to different requirements, they are highly qualified to work on the dairy, pulling or treating calves and getting IVs started, Entzminger says. They get valuable experience, and Entzminger gets qualified and reliable labor.

"They play an important role," he says. "It's your night shift. It's your 2 a.m."

He's heard that 78 percent of dairy products use foreign labor to get to market.

"We count on foreign labor," he says. Changes to the nation's immigration program that would make it harder for agricultural workers to come here "would cripple the dairy industry."

Outside of worker visa programs, Entzminger says he has had a substantial number of foreign-born employees who come looking for jobs. His bookkeeper checks their paperwork to make sure everything is in order, and they go to work. Many such employees have stayed with him for years.

More South African workers

While Mexico supplies by far the largest number of workers to fill the U.S. needs, a growing number come from South Africa. The number of South Africans coming to the U.S. under H2A visas has gone from zero in 1997 to 2,335 in 2016.

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Weygandt says farming in South Africa is a hard way to make a living, both because of the intense manual labor and the lingering problems with racism.

"There's not really an easy future for them in farming," he says.

For those who can afford the process, coming to the U.S. can be a way to make "easy money." Weygandt explains that the exchange rate means money made in the U.S. is worth more than 12 times as much in South Africa.

Heger says bringing South African workers to the U.S. has nothing to do with finding cheap labor. Her farm pays at least the lowest allowable rate, $13.79 in North Dakota, but often pays far more than that if they get the same workers back year after year with invaluable knowledge and experience. Plus, the Hegers have to pay to get their workers here and back and for their living expenses.

Problems to address

While many parts of the work visa programs are working, there are problems that those in agriculture wish could be addressed.

Heger would like to see more flexibility in the H2A program, including allowing workers to stay in the U.S. longer, allowing multi-year contracts, allowing employees to work for multiple employers and allowing workers to move among states.

Weygandt wishes the process cost less. For South Africans, it's often the "rich" farmers who can come to the U.S. while it's cost prohibitive for some of the poorer farmers who need the work.

Entzminger would be in favor of a "blue card" proposal, in which immigrant workers who show that they are working, paying taxes and staying out of trouble would have legal status to stay in the U.S.

Entzminger says more Americans should be thanking the people who come to this country to work on farms and ranches rather than shaming them.

"We should be more grateful and far less 'shame on you,'" he says.

While foreign laborers have become known for their work ethic, which is part of the reason they find work on U.S. farms, Entzminger says his employees have substantial smarts, as well.

"If we'd build universities instead of a wall, we'd all be better off," he says.

Heger advises anyone considering hiring foreign labor to find someone who already is and get some tips on making it work.

"It's not something that everybody does well," she says. There are cultural barriers and language barriers that can make such arrangements difficult.

But, she says, the people who come to work in agriculture are not looking to make "a quick buck and go home." Rather, they are coming to learn, and in doing so, invest time and money in local communities.

"They're here to contribute," she says. "Not just to take away from those who live here."

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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