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Labor changes in custom harvesting

Tim Thornberry Published on 29 May 2015
Harvesting corn

Farmers deal with many variables when it comes to raising a crop, be it changes in the weather or changes in unsettled markets, but the act of harvesting can be one ray of stability when left to professional custom harvesters.

Most harvesters depend on an adequate labor force, as does all of agriculture. But finding enough qualified workers has become a huge issue, causing a very traditional American heartland industry to add an international element.

Jason Holcomb, who has worked in the custom-harvesting industry and is currently a professor at Morehead State University, says sometime during the 1990s he began to see a switch from domestic laborers working in the crews to more foreign labor, and they didn’t all necessarily come from a Hispanic background as most people would assume.

“In 2003, I worked with five men from South Africa, and in 2014 I worked with a man from Australia and some men from Romania,” Holcomb says. Holcomb says he has learned that the largest numbers of foreign laborers coming here to work in the custom-harvesting industry are from South Africa.

“And it’s not just men. Some of the workers are women,” he says. “They also come from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, France and Ukraine.”

Holcomb describes it as a major transformation in the labor force. He cites the reason harvesters are hiring so many migrant workers is because they can’t find American workers.

Custom harvesting has been around for decades, and in many cases harvesters have worked with their farming customers for long periods, even across generations. And, as is the case with farming operations, numerous custom-harvesting businesses are family owned-and-operated.

They also vary in size from the one- or two-combine operations to those with several. Some harvesters travel great distances while others stay closer to home, especially the smaller businesses. But all have a couple of things in common: They work hard during the harvest season, and they all seem to love what they do.

Holcomb knows both the work side and the love of the industry but has a completely different story to tell when it comes to his experience as a harvester. “It’s something I did while going through college and graduate school. I worked with a harvesting crew from Sterling, Kansas, for all or part of 15 summers,” Holcomb says.

“In May, we would load up the combines, tractors, grain carts, the bunk houses and all the other equipment and move it to Texas and start harvesting wheat.” From Texas, Holcomb said the next stops were Oklahoma, Kansas, back to Texas, Colorado and finally Montana.

Holcomb remains an associate member of U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc. (USCHI), an organization that serves as a link between harvesters and the many groups of people they work with, such as farmers, businesses, state governments and the federal government.

When Holcomb began, he says it was a good job for a college student because it was mostly seasonal labor. “That’s how I got started, and I kept doing it because it was good money, and I kept doing it even after I became a professor – until 2004,” Holcomb says.

While it has been over a decade since Holcomb last worked in the industry, he has remained connected to the work because he loves it and because he has conducted research on the industry as it relates to labor.

While labor continues to be an issue for all sectors of the agriculture industry, custom harvesters – like their farming customers – also rely heavily on the mercy of Mother Nature.

Holcomb says recent droughts have caused some harvesting operations to lose business. He noted that during the most recent droughts in Texas, some harvesters didn’t even make the trip.

However, one of the reasons custom harvesting developed and still remains a vital component in American agriculture is because of the cost farmers would incur to buy their own equipment.

Holcomb says it doesn’t make sense for most farmers to purchase equipment that can cost as much as $350,000 per machine and only use it for a couple of weeks each year.

Kent Braathen, a harvester from Grand Forks, North Dakota, knows how costly equipment can be as well as the other ups and downs that come with the harvesting business. He has spent “41 summers” traveling throughout the heart of the country in the family harvesting business his father began.

Braathen says that “family feeling” extends to his customers because of the long-term relationships they have developed. Braathen says, “The customers become more like a family, and it gets to be more of a family relationship with them as well as a customer relationship. I’m working for a customer my dad started working for back in 1974, so we’ve actually been working for that farmer for more than 40 years.”

Braathen says those farmers rely on harvesters and trust them to be there at harvest time. In order to meet that need, harvesters have diversified their operations, much like farmers have across the country.

Braathen says his family began moving more into fall crops several years ago as more and more farmers went to no-till production.

“They needed to have a rotation with the no-till, so it started 17 or 18 years ago for us,” Braathen says. “Diversification has really changed things, and that is where a labor issue has come into play.”

Braathen says when the wheat harvest was all that was handled, college and high school students could be used during the summer, but now that fall crops have been added, finding enough help has become more difficult. He says, “Now that everyone is moving toward a fall harvest, we have to have help probably six or seven months out of the year.”

Dealing with mounting labor problems as well as other legislative-type issues requires a strong voice at state and federal levels. Braathen says USCHI helps provide that voice for the industry. He has served as a past president of the organization and is currently on the board of directors.

Despite the challenges most harvesters face, both Braathen and Holcomb think the industry will remain a necessity for the farmers they serve.

Braathen says, “I’m on the road from probably May 20 until November 20 – a good six months before I get to see home again. It’s not an easy task to be gone that long, but it’s something that gets in your blood.

There’s something about getting in the combine, harvesting a field and seeing what you’ve done – it’s a good feeling and gives you a sense of accomplishment.”  FG

Tim Thornberry is a freelance writer based in Frankfort, Kentucky