In the wheat fields of Kansas, the American dream is still alive.
Geoffrey Burgess came from Bolney, England, following that dream the same way the pioneers did more than a century ago. He took to the custom harvest fields to learn more and realized that this was where he wanted to stake his claim.
In these parts, multigeneration farmers are commonplace. But Geoff and his wife, Jenny, are the first generation working to expand their fledgling Burgess Hill Farms near Sterling.
For now, it’s just Geoff and Jenny, along with his father-in-law on occasion. But the couple, like most in farming, are looking to expand. That means finding a farm hand.
Yet, while the Burgesses contemplate growing their operation, they encountered one hurdle: Farm workers are hard to find.
The topic came up this spring at a Reno County farm policy meeting at the Carriage Crossing restaurant in Yoder. “A lot of people agreed it was hard enough to find help – but even harder to find good help that will show up,” Jenny Burgess said of the talk around the dinner table.
However, she added, “We are all still trying to figure out the answer.”
Searching for workers
The farm employment plight is obviously one that Geoff knows all too well. When he first came to the United States with his J-1 training visa from the government in 2000, it was to help Rice County custom harvester Lance Frederick.
Each year Frederick and his brother, Drew, search for skilled, reliable labor to help them operate Frederick Harvesting. Often, however, they do not find it in the United States.
Frederick found Geoff through The Ohio Program. The Ohio State University internship training program takes skilled students like Geoff, who have had advanced training in agriculture, horticulture and similar fields, and pairs them up with U.S. mentors.
Geoff had just completed an agricultural mechanic program through a university in England.
“He wanted to further his education, and that is a big thing,” Frederick said, noting that on his operation, “You are going to see farming practices clear from Texas to the Canada border, from where it rains very little or quite a bit. They see diversity of crops, irrigated versus dryland. They are not exposed to those areas where they come from.”
Frederick said he also teaches his employees about rural living and community service. Often his crew helps with a local project, whether it is remodeling a church or a town hall.
Geoff said his parents had a 10-acre vegetable farm when he was young. Eventually, however, his father took an agricultural professor post at a nearby university.
It was through his father’s position that he became familiar with The Ohio Program.
Workers from England arrived in early March at Frederick’s farm. More arrived in May. In all, the custom harvester hired about 25 people for his crew, which left to cut wheat in Texas in late May.
Frederick said he tries to hire as many American workers as he can to go on the seven-month harvest run north to the border. Most years he gets 50 percent American workers. This year, that could be a challenge.
“One of our biggest hurdles is to find enough young men who want to come do this work,” Frederick said. “And the past few years it has been a struggle to get enough skilled farm guys. It takes skills to do what we are doing.”
Other foreign workers have found opportunity in Kansas. Anders Buus Thomson was matched through The Ohio Program with a custom cutter.
Today, Buus Thomson, who came from Denmark, helps operate a custom-cutting operation from the Barber County town of Kiowa.
He and his wife, Amanda, are running into the same issues that brought Buss Thomson to America.
They usually hire six workers through both The Ohio Program and the H-2A temporary visa program for foreign agricultural workers.
“We have one spot left to fill,” Amanda Thomson said. “We would love to hire an American.”
One issue, she said, is that in their area, “we can’t compete with the oilfield” pay.
Geoff said he, too, is looking at using The Ohio Program – with a goal to help another Englishman learn the agriculture trade and experience American farming.
He met Jenny not long after he went to work for Frederick. She was a waitress at Patty’s restaurant in Sterling, which the crew frequented for dinner.
They married in 2004. Farming was a dream, but it wasn’t until a local farmer told the couple he wanted to retire that the couple got a break.
“You almost have to have your foot in the door before anyone hears about it,” Jenny said.
They began to take over that operation in 2008.
“Every day is a challenge being a first generation,” Jenny said. “We are trying to hold on to what we have and trying to increase the farm size.”
For now they have been able to rely on Jenny’s father, Rick Leonard of Sterling, to help with harvest and planting. And, in the winter months, Geoff uses his mechanical skills to work on local farmers’ equipment.
In the next year, they plan to grow their 1,500-acre spread in Reno and Rice counties.
“I’ve used family up until now,” he said. “Up until now, that has worked, but in the future, that is not ideal.”
He doesn’t need full-time, year-round help, he added.
“I’ve been looking at the program I came over on,” he said. “I want to give someone else a chance who wants to work, has the skills to do the job.”
Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel’s agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (800) 766-3311, ext. 320.