Coronavirus threatens to keep foreign workers out of U.S.

Michael Kelly (center) with his second-season experienced farm hands from South Africa, Jason Griesel and Hanrich Scholdz.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a jarring impact on farmers bringing in foreign seasonal laborers through the H-2A agricultural guest worker program.

Michael Kelly, who grain-farms in northeast North Dakota, is in his second year employing South Africans in the H-2A workers for seasonal farm work. The Kellys farm about 5,000 acres — pinto beans, often black turtle beans, soybeans and hard red spring wheat.

North Dakota’s H-2A workers, mostly from South Africa, have increased steadily from 1,500 in 2017 to 1,700 in 2018, according to the North Dakota Department of Commerce. Some just barely made it into the country for the 2020 summer growing season before the flights were shut because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nationwide, H-2A workers were up 11% across the country, bringing in 260,000 in the 2019 fiscal year. The top state was Florida, with 33,598 in fiscal year 2019, or 13% of the total followed by Georgia, 29,480; Washington, 26,226; and California, 23,321.

The biggest category was “general farm work,” accounting for 12.4%, followed by specific workers for berries, tobacco, fruit and vegetables.

The COVID-19 crisis nearly stopped the Kellys’ South Africans — Jason Griesel, 24, and Hanrich Scholdz, 23 — from coming on their flight that arrived March 17. Airlines already had canceled flights because of low numbers of passengers or restrictions because of COVID-19. On March 26, the South African president locked down all international flights for 21 days.

Griesel and Scholdz say they were some of the last H-2A workers who left South Africa and know others who weren’t as lucky.

Griesel went to school in a town of about 25,000 people, about 120 miles north of Johannesburg, South Africa. His father, Wimpie Griesel, is in charge of a 15,000 acre farm operation that his late grandfather established. The farm is headed by four family members and raises corn and sunflowers, with some under irrigation, as well as a cattle feedlot. It employs 35 people.

“First of all, you do it for the money, and second you do it for experience,” Griesel said. He has cattle and wants to start his “own thing,” which would be a separate farming operation.

Scholdz doesn’t come from a farm but worked on friends’ farms. He quit a job at Nissan to spend the summer in the U.S.

Kelly, in his 47th crop year, has hired local labor through the years, but in the past few years it’s been difficult to find “anybody viable” to help him out. Two years ago, Kelly bumped into another farmer who told him about the Agri-Placement Services Inc., of Oklahoma City. Agri-Placement got Kelly in touch with people from South Africa. Michael had his first two South African workers last year.

Kelly says both Griesel and Scholdz have experience using large trucks and equipment. Griesel also had wire welding and gas-welding experience.

“The South Africans are well-trained, and well-schooled, and at an early age seem to know what they want and where they’re headed,” Kelly said.

The South African schools teach English, starting in the third grade.

In the past, U.S. farmers seeking the H-2A workers first had to advertise in newspapers for a week in four different states for local workers before hiring the foreign worker. “Of course, nobody applied,” Michael said. The rules changed last year, and that requirement was dropped “That was a real good regulation to get rid of.”

Kelly wanted this year’s workers to arrive by March 10. The farmer-employer provides airline tickets, as well as a return flight. They must provide housing that passes inspection, as well as “a means of transportation and gas” so they can get to and from work. They don’t have to supply meals.

Griesel says the first he heard about COVID-19 was in January, when he started his applications to come back to the United States. On March 5, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa warned that COVID-19 would turn into a “national crisis” and that its impact would be “huge,” according to the BBC. Their South African agent urged them to act quickly. “I was still waiting for my visa and we barely made it,” Griesel said. He knows workers back in South Africa who got the application and everything was sorted, “but they can’t get a (plane) ticket.”

Prior to their flight, Griesel’s mother sent “six packs of wet wipes and three bottles of sanitizer” to make the plane trip. Many people in the airport were moving around with masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus spread. “I thought, ‘My God, what have I gotten myself into’,” he remembers thinking.

Kelly had lined up the same apartment in Petersburg, N.D., population 175, that his workers had lived in last year. But the housing complex included some elderly people, so the owner said the South Africans couldn’t take residence until they’d had a two-week self-quarantine to protect against the COVID-19 illness.

“I couldn’t just leave them out in the snow,” Kelly said. “So I said, ‘You guys can come and stay with me’.’” So Kelly was quarantined with his workers. Because of the South Africans, Joel Kelly stayed away from the farm because Joel’s girlfriend, a registered nurse who works in elder care homes in the region, couldn’t risk transmission.

In yet another COVID-19 complication Michael Kelly’s wife, Jane, who lives during the week at Hallock, Minn., where she is office manager for a law firm, was also on quarantine from her job because she and Michael had flown in from Mesa, Ariz.

Michael Kelly said he doesn’t know what he would have done if the South Africans hadn’t arrived. “That would have been a disaster. How do you, in the spring, go find two qualified people to come out and work in a rural setting. It’s just about impossible.”

He noted that farm equipment is highly valuable, sometimes worth $400,000 to $500,000. “You can’t just throw somebody on it. It’s got all the technology on it — auto-steer, the auto-depth control. You’ve got to be capable to run this stuff,” he said.

Scholdz guesses it might be June or July before things start to relax. He’s more concerned that conditions in South Africa will allow them to return at the end of their season in November. But if it doesn’t, what then? Easy, he said with a grin, “Stay with Mike.”

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