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.”

Placement service

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.”­­