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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.
THE SOUTH AFRICAN crew at Silent Shade Planting Company, Belzoni, Miss., with farm partners Jeremy Jack, right, and Willard Jack, third from right: from left are Rudolf (Rudi) Van Jaarsveldt, Duwayne Jaco Lamprecht, Hendrik Fourie, Lukas (Tertius) Ignatius Potgieter, Willem Maartens Blignault, Jacobus (Johan) Johannes Barnard, Johannes (Fanus) Stephanus Jansen Van Vuuren, and Marc Needham.
To hire foreign workers under the H2A program, he says, “It’s extremely important to use a good placement service. There is a tremendous amount of paperwork and jumping through hoops, a lot of phone calls and interviews. It requires a lot of patience.
“First, you must file a petition with the U.S. Department of Labor for participation in the program. Then, you have to try and recruit locally — in our case, the four state area — for the workers you need.
“After that, we get résumés, and conduct overseas interviews with those we think will fit our needs. Once we’ve decided to offer a job to a candidate, we then hope they can make it through all the requirements of their country’s consulate. It’s a very complex process.
“Even after we do all that, offer a contract, and they get here, some will get homesick, or don’t like the work, and we’ll have to send them home.”
It can be very costly, Jack says.
“There are filing fees, local recruitment fees, overseas recruiting fees, plane tickets ($6,500 for each of the workers we hired), housing (and the 96-item checklist for worker housing is formidable), and on and on.
“For the eight workers we’ve hired, agency fees, travel, and other costs associated with getting them here were about $60,000. That’s before wages and other costs once they’re on the ground here.”
Among the shortcomings of the H2A program, Jack says, is that it’s very difficult to recruit the same people for successive years.
“If we get a worker who turns out well and who we’d like to bring back, it often can’t be done. Their government wants to do everything possible to make sure they will return to their country.”
He brought two of his South African employees with him to the MAEA meeting, Willem Blignault and Hendrik Fourie.
Willem has a construction background, has studied engineering, and is with Jack for a second year under the H2A program. Hendrik has a farming background, has studied agriculture, and this is his first year here.
“For us, there is a lot of uncertainty in the H2A process,” Willem said. “A lot of paperwork, a lot of interviews, and proof to our consulate that we will be returning when our contract has ended.”
Once a contract is signed, he said, “Then comes the challenge of traveling thousands of miles, getting off a plane, and immediately beginning work in a place where you know no one, where there is a completely different culture.
“But for me, it has been a great experience, offering an opportunity to work with different crops, new technologies, and complex equipment. There is a considerable contrast between farming in the Mississippi Delta and in South Africa, and I’ve gained a lot of valuable experience and knowledge that I can take back to my own country to enhance my career there.”
It also has offered “an opportunity to earn a good salary, and to travel,” Willem says. “Mississippi and the South have a rich heritage and culture, and it has been a pleasure to experience it.
“Working with Jeremy on his large, modern farming operation has been a great, great experience — opening my eyes to new methods and systems.”
It’s a two-way interaction, Jack says. “They often help us to see things in a different light, to see how we might do things better, more efficiently. It can be a very beneficial relationship.”