There are 63,000 Kansans unemployed – yet in the rural reaches of the state, farmers like Mitchell Baalman could use a bumper crop of farm hands.
There are just some jobs Americans seemingly won’t do.
“The work ethic isn’t there,” said Baalman, who farms in Sheridan County near Hoxie. “There aren’t a lot of people wanting to work long hours, to work weekends. During planting and harvest there is sometimes no downtime.”
It’s a reality for many across the depopulating prairie landscape. It’s hard to find skilled workers who will put in the long hours, will labor in the heat and the cold, and are skilled enough to handle precision machinery.
The federal government likes Americans to hire Americans, but ads in local and state newspapers have proved fruitless.
“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,” Baalman said.
So, with proof he is in desperate need of a few good workers, Baalman looked across the ocean, hiring a Missouri agency to help him complete the government paperwork and find temporary skilled employees for his farm.
The federal labor program, called H-2A, allows seasonal foreign workers into the country to make up the gap in places where it is tough to find Americans willing to do the job.
Three workers come every spring – typically the same three South African men who will work for Baalman through November. The program requires him to pay $13.59 an hour. He also provides them a place to stay – the farmhouse he grew up in – which is inspected by federal officials. He also provides a vehicle and cellphone.
He said he was was among the first to find employees elsewhere – but in recent years has passed on the information to a dozen other farmers with operations around him who are having similar problems.
“There is definitely a need here,” he said.
In the same boat
Kelly Sutton, who operates Missouri-based Placement Services Global, the company Baalman uses to help him find H-2A workers, said the need for agricultural workers is nationwide. However, there is a mismatch between what farmers need and the skills of the nation’s jobless.
She sees the biggest needs in Kansas, as well as North Dakota, where high-paying jobs in the oil industry have lured workers off farms and ranches.
Sutton stressed the program is not a way to get migrant workers to America or take American jobs. Farmers like Baalman, she said, would pay qualified local workers the same wage. Farmers who use the program shell out thousands to pay for plane tickets, visas, training and other fees.
But it is tough, she said, to find people willing to take a seasonal job that, in Kansas, most likely spans seven months of the year.
“Part of it is people don’t want the part-time, seasonal jobs,” she said, adding, “There is a big need, and it is nationwide.”
The latest government figures show that about 74,000 workers were issued H-2A visas in 2013, compared to about 55,000 in 2011.
Farmers, Sutton said, “just want good, reliable workers.”
Across rural Kansas, unemployment rates are better than in urban areas like Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties. Sheridan County, in fact, along with Gove County, has the lowest unemployment rate in Kansas at 2 percent in December 2014.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture’s agribusiness development director, Lynne Hinrichsen, who farms with her husband, Ron, near Westmoreland, said that makes it tough to find workers. Moreover, it is getting more difficult to find people who know about agriculture when just 2 percent of the population lives on farms.
Rural workforce issues are a conversation that should be started, she said of her department.
“Our job is to promote this way of life is a way to make a living,” she said.
But it’s not an easy problem to fix, she said, noting the need for more rural housing and trained workers who can run expensive precision agricultural machinery.
Kansas Department of Commerce spokesman Matt Keith said vocational and technical colleges have some programs to help train workers. Meanwhile, the Career and Technical Education Initiative gives Kansas high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to take postsecondary technical training classes for free.
Keith said some farmers and agribusinesses have used the state’s Rural Opportunity Zone program to entice workers. The ROZ program offers income tax and school loan payoff incentives to those who move to qualifying rural counties.
“It is a recruitment tool they could use,” he said.
But getting people to rural areas isn’t easy. One farmer said it is part of the reason he has some of his farming custom hired.
“Western Kansas is a horrible place to look for labor with unemployment at 2 percent or in that vicinity,” said Vance Ehmke, who farms near Dighton. “Lack of labor constrains the economy.
“Our initial attitude is that if we can find someone to do it custom, that’s always our first choice. Like custom harvesting, custom planting, custom spraying, custom seed cleaning, custom trucking. ... When we hire these firms, we no longer have to worry about the labor end of things.”
Darrell Wood, who farms in Edwards County, said the challenges were different when his great-grandfather homestead the area in 1885.
But the farm has grown significantly with parcels spread across five counties. There are times it is a struggle to find 13 people who can help with harvest.
“Right now, we are pretty lucky,” he said, noting he has been able to find retired superintendents and principals to help with the busy harvest season. One employee who has been with him seven years left a job as a John Deere mechanic.
But it hasn’t always been that easy. The population of Edwards County continues to slip downward, dropping 500 people in the past decade. “I’m very concerned about the future,” Wood said.
Baalman said his three South Africans returned in April. That meant he had a busy March, going through housing inspections and finalizing paperwork. They are helping with his trucking company, as well as with the farm. They’ve learned a lot, he said. They’ve become family. “We decided to make the jump and bring some people over to help us,” Baalman said. “It hasn’t’ always been a sunny day. We’ve had our trials. But we have made it work.”
“There isn’t anyone else to replace them,” he said.