As agricultural practices and systems become increasingly complex and the emphasis on efficiency in practices and resources becomes more demanding, the availability of competent, reliable local workers continues to shrink.

Which has led to more widespread use of migrant workers, particularly for vegetable, fruit, poultry, dairy, and other labor intensive agricultural operations.

For Jeremy Jack, a partner in Silent Shade Planting Company at Belzoni, Miss., the search for competent labor has taken him all the way to South Africa.

This year, he contracted eight employees from there under the government’s H2A Temporary Agricultural Workers Program to come and work on the 7,500-acre row crop operation that also includes a trucking company.

“It’s a daunting process — and every year it seems to get worse,” he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at Mississippi State University. “But despite all the paperwork and the hoops you have to jump through, it has worked well for us.

“On our farms, we try in every way to make every operation as efficient as possible, and to use every resource as effectively as possible. We need workers who can understand the need for efficiency, who can work with the latest technology and machinery, and can comprehend the work and goals we’re trying to accomplish.

“We have 1,000 to 1,200 acres per farm, and there’s quite a bit of travel and machinery movement involved. A crew will usually be on a farm for an entire day, and they need to be able to carry out the needed tasks with a minimum of hand-holding.

“The South Africans have proven reliable, willing workers, quick learners, and importantly, they understand what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Counting the eight South Africans, his operation has 24 employees; there are six local employees, six truck drivers, and four managers.

Finding willing workers with those skill sets locally, or even regionally, has become increasingly difficult and frustrating, Jack says.

“We’re constantly trying to hire local labor — it’s certainly much cheaper for us than bringing workers from overseas — but there isn’t much of a pool to select from. They either aren’t qualified or are not reliable, or both. In my 15-year farming career, I must’ve hired and fired 150 people who just didn’t work out.

“It’s just really hard to find someone who doesn’t mind the grunt work that any farming involves, but who can also do the skilled tasks that are increasingly involved in modern, high tech agriculture.”

As part of the H2A recruitment requirements, Jack says, it’s necessary to first try and hire needed workers from the local area.

“‘Local,’ for us, now encompasses a four state area,” he says, “and from that area we received only 20 or 30 applications, most of which either didn’t have the needed skills/experience or didn’t want the jobs we had.”

Last September, Jack says, “We began the process needed to try and get workers who could come here in February. Sometimes, there are delays and they get here after we’ve started planting, so we don’t get the benefit of having them for the full employment term.”