With all the challenges facing farmers these days, one of their hardest chores is finding quality help.
It is a testament to all the changes that have come in agricultural circles over the years. It used to be that farm hands were easy to find. Like much of the good old times, those days are gone. It used to be that almost anyone could be trained to drive a tractor. But technological advances have changed that.
For example, tractors now are equipped with all sorts of sophisticated gadgets that use GPS to determine areas within fields where additional seed or fertilizer should be applied. That’s just scratching the surface of agricultural technology. Maintaining that equipment isn’t something just anyone can do, either.
But, sadly, the farm-hand plight is also the result of a troubling trend in America as a whole. Mitchell Baalman, who farms near Hoxie in Sheridan County, has to look elsewhere for quality farm help because what’s here doesn’t cut it.
“The work ethic isn’t there,” Baalman said. “There aren’t a lot of people wanting to work long hours, to work weekends. During planting and harvest there is sometimes no downtime. You get a lot of trash – people you know you won’t hire because they are just working the system – doing an interview to keep their unemployment status.”
Tough assessment, but with 63,000 Kansans unemployed, he has to be right.
So he looks overseas to find the three hired men he needs every year to work on his farm and the trucking operation he runs. He uses the H-2A federal labor program that allows foreign workers to come here to fill needed positions that Americans won’t take.
He’s required to pay them $13.59 an hour. He also must provide housing, a vehicle and cellphone. There are also plane fares and other transportation expenses. For the past three years, he’s had the same employees from South Africa. It hasn’t always been a bed of roses, but it’s worked.
There’s also another way to find employees, this one using technology. That’s through the online business Hansen Agri-placement, based out of Grand Island, Nebraska. It matches agriculture employers with workers looking for a job. It’s been referred to as the “eHarmony of farm employees.”
For Mark Pettijohn, who farms in northeast Saline County, and Dustin Conrad, who lived in Illinois, the “matchmaking service” worked. Conrad came down for a trial in 2014 and has been here since.
“He’s been a godsend,” said Pettijohn. “He is rich with skills, knowledge and enthusiasm. We make a very good team.”
It can be done. Farm hands can be found. But it takes thinking outside the proverbial box.