HENDRICKS, Minn. — Another startling interruption of farm workers from South Africa may have been averted for many in farming and production agriculture in the Dakotas.

Chad Olsen, owner of Olsen Custom Farms, based in Hendricks, Minn., tends to hire about 65 workers through the H-2A program from South Africa to run his custom combine crews throughout the middle of the U.S. The visa program supplies hundreds of temporary ag-related employees in the Dakotas, Minnesota and elsewhere.

When President Joe Biden's administration in January announced a temporary travel ban on anyone coming from South Africa, the American Farm Bureau Federation and U.S. Custom Harvesters Association were among those who worked immediately to change the decision. On Jan. 29, the administration announced that the H-2A visiting employees from South Africa are considered “essential workers.”

Chad Olsen, owner of Olsen Custom Farms, based in Hendricks, Minn. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)
Chad Olsen, owner of Olsen Custom Farms, based in Hendricks, Minn. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)
“The decision came faster than I thought it would,” Olsen acknowledged.

“They’re going to be able to come, now, but it’s a lockdown in South Africa where the people aren’t working,” Olsen said.

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His employees have to get their passports or visas stamped at the U.S. Consulate. He understands that those consulate workers may be working in the office as few as one to two days a week due to South African rules that have forced some of the work to be done through mail versus in person because of COVID-19. Those workers are behind “at least a month.”

Optimistically, Olsen thinks his crew might come in a month later.

“The worst case is if they shut the travel down,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll happen.”

OCF struggled with the COVID-19 effect a year ago. On March 15, 2020, they learned the borders were closing to South Africans. Chad and his wife and key employees scrambled to get the plane tickets they could until they ran out.

“We got 30 guys that got here in April,” Olsen said. “The rest of them, the borders were closed down, no travel.”

They finally got a charter plane together to bring the workers. They arrived in early July — six weeks later than they would have wanted and needed them.

“A lot of local friends, my family, some of my employees’ families, kind of stepped up to the plate and drove combine for the month of June while we were in Oklahoma. When the employees started arriving last year, the company had local people who had committed to helping out.

“It definitely cost us a lot more money,” he said. “We were kind of paying two salaries, some of the guys sitting around once they got here. But we weren’t going to back out on the people who had committed to come and help us out for a month or six weeks who could have gone somewhere else and gotten a job.”

The question now is, does the company start calling young people again to fill in until the South Africans get here?

“Or, do we wait it out?” he said. "A month down the road they’ll know more, and if they’re not coming.”

Olsen’s wife and their kids drove combines.

“They’re young, which was kind of enjoyable, but," he said, pausing. "One way or another we’re going to figure it out.”

Michael Kelly of Niagara, N.D., hired two South African employees scheduled to come Feb. 25, or perhaps the first week of March. The employees are the same two Kelly had last year, and one was here a year before that. Kelly said he was alarmed when it was announced that all travel from South Africa and the United Kingdom into the U.S. would be banned.

A number of agricultural entities have called or contacted the White House about the need for these South African employees to come and help agricultural farms, Kelly said. Kelly was told by the North Dakota Agriculture Department that 1,800 South Africans come to North Dakota alone.

Kelly said there just aren’t enough qualified rural people to work on farms, certainly not in his township.

“My son and I spent some time contacting potential (employees) in our county to see if they’d be interested in helping us out for the growing season,” Kelly said. “We didn’t get much response. One said they’d try and help us out on the weekends, but we were not able to find any full-time employees or help.”

Kelly said all of the paperwork had been completed before the announced interruptions. He said he thinks everything was complete now that the policy has improved. The men are expecting their visas any day to fly over at the end of February or the first week of March. He’s heard about the need for some additional paperwork, but he doesn’t know what that would be, or if it would be enough to hold things up.

If they arrive as he hopes, they’ll be here through Nov. 15.