Albert Marais is racing against the threat of rain. The 100-degree heat and soft wind is ideal wheat-cutting weather, and Marais is moving fast across a Colorado field in his Deere & Co. combine.
“We cut 360 acres with this one machine yesterday, that’s a pretty good day,” said Marais, 31, working a farm east of Aurora. “It’s flat, easy to cut out here.”
Marais and his three-man crew have come from South Africa, following a migratory route based on harvests in each hemisphere.
Great Plains wheat-cutting teams, once filled by U.S. farm kids, now rely on foreigners for about one-third of the workers who cut grain sold to Cargill Inc. and others, according to trade group U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc. The highly skilled itinerant workers, a little-noted component of the immigration overhaul struggling through Congress this year, have become essential to the nation’s $17.9 billion wheat crop.
“Wheat has a relatively short window to be harvested, so you need to have enough people available at the right time,” said Terry Kastens, a retired economics professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, who surveys combine operators.
Proposals in both houses of Congress to impose a cap on the number of work visas available to agricultural laborers may leave harvesters out of luck if the quota is already filled before they arrive for the season that begins in May.
Costs would go up without the harvesters, harming rural economies, Kastens said. One cutting crew will serve dozens of farms, helping to keep smaller operations in business by saving capital costs for farmers who then don’t need to buy their own combines, he said.
Afrikaners -- South Africans of mostly European ancestry -- have a special advantage because the U.S. summer months coincide with their winter, meaning they can harvest at home and then hit the road. And they speak English.
They bunk with crewmates in a mobile trailer and earn a little more than $20 an hour, hauling combines that can cost $350,000 in semi-tractor trailers across the Plains with stops in dozens of fields.
Work starts once the morning dew has dried and may continue for 16 hours until nightfall makes the wheat too wet. Harvesters work nearly continually to keep a combine moving cross-country from farm to farm, following the fields as they mature. After Aurora, Marais’s team was scheduled to head to Loveland, then the Dakotas and Kansas to start the fall crops of sorghum, canola, corn and peas.
While their numbers pale in comparison to what may be more than one million mostly Hispanic and sometimes undocumented immigrants in agriculture, a migrant cutter’s economic impact is significant because of mechanization. The U.S. wheat crop was worth almost double that of grapes, oranges and strawberries combined in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Unlike visa programs for tech workers, there’s currently no cap on the number of visas set aside for farmworkers. That would change under the immigration proposals pending in Congress.
South Africans are the largest contingent among the English-speaking immigrant combiners, sending 1,122 workers to the U.S. on H-2A visas last year, up from none 15 years earlier, State Department figures show.
While a distant second to Mexico’s 61,324 visas, South Africa outpaces Peru and Guatemala, the next two nations on the list of countries that provide workers under the H-2A program. U.K., New Zealand and Australian cutters dot the crews, with occasional harvesters from South America or Ukraine, regions where farming can be highly mechanized.
The wheat harvest began internationalizing in the 1990s, when the skills required for a crew increased and the availability of U.S. labor declined, said Jim Deibert, who operates JKD Harvesting Inc., based in Colby, Kansas.
Combines have grown more sophisticated and expensive and longer school years have pulled U.S. students out of fields earlier. That, and tight job markets in Plains states, have prompted employers to turn to foreign workers, said Deibert, a professional harvester for 42 years who started using immigrants in 1991.
Most of his workers come through a student exchange program with Ohio State University, though he still employs the occasional American: “This year I have Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland -- and Indiana. One Hoosier,” he said.
Marais is working with his 27-year-old brother Jannie, and another South African on his first U.S. harvest, 29-year-old Janus Naude. The income helps them finance their farm near Bethlehem, South Africa, 166 miles (267 kilometers) south of Johannesburg.
“I like Oklahoma,” says Jannie Marais, preparing to move the combine to another field outside Denver. “It’s more like back home.”
The harvesters speak English over their CB radios, in part to reassure eavesdropping police officers (called “voet,” meaning “foot,” in Afrikaans slang) who can’t understand their language. They revert to their own language when speaking among one another.
Most of the harvest workers come to the U.S. on temporary H-2A visas. Employers are concerned that visa limitations proposed in Congress may cut off their supply.
After Senate approval of a comprehensive immigration law in June, the Republican-led U.S. House said earlier this month it will delay consideration until this fall.
Plans to replace the H-2A program may cut into the availability of visas for the harvesters, who all arrive around March and April, potentially after a cap could already be filled, said Frank Gasperini, chief executive officer of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, a Vienna, Virginia-based trade group.
That may put the cutters at a disadvantage in a flood of applications from workers in fresh produce who have larger employers and more political clout because of their bigger numbers, Gasperini said.
“If we hit the caps early in the season, then we’re frozen out,” he said. “The cutters are really worried that the program is going toward the needs of groups that have more workers.”
“We’re following the rules, and we’re making the program work as best we can for us, but the government keeps wanting to tweak it,” Deibert said. “The guys who have been doing it right need to be treated right.”
The combiners say they’ll find a way to get back for the next harvest. Workers in Johannesburg rugby-team caps have become part of the fabric of the Plains, where the wheat harvest remains part of a common language, even though its accent has changed.
“I think that without them, I might have to quit,” said Leo Stephens, owner of Leo Stephens Harvesting based in Colby, Kansas, and the South African crew’s U.S. boss. “I’d at least have to cut back on my number of combines. I love having these guys. They want to be a part of America.”