UK and Irish students struggle to join the 2,000-mile harvest

The Corona (COVID-19) virus situation means that North American custom cutters could struggle to fill the seats on their combines, trucks and chaser bin tractors this season.

by Steven Vale

22 Mar 2020

The dream of a lifetime for many European agricultural college students is to join a crew for the 2,000-mile North American harvest. Overseas workers are believed to account for more than half of the required staff, but the travel ban caused by the Corona virus situation is preventing this season’s applicants from jetting across the Atlantic.

Co-ordinator John Beardmore of the Ohio International Intern Program, who works with various UK colleges to find placements for students with seven harvesting firms, stresses that the travel ban is not the only complication.

After months of work finding and placing guys on crews, the US embassies in England and Ireland are currently closed for business until further notice, and all visa application appointments have been postponed.

“The current situation means that none of the students that are due to travel in March and April will arrive on time,” said Mr Beardmore. “Even if the travel ban is lifted and visa applications are processed then it will be a struggle to get anyone to the US before mid-May at the earliest.”

Speaking to us from his office in Ohio, he stresses that limiting the spread of the virus is the most important thing at this stage. “It would be difficult to self-isolate if a student became sick when sharing accommodation.”

He is not yet in panic mode but the situation is frustrating. “The seven custom cutter crews we work with are likely to be short-staffed this season and everyone will be affected.”

JKD Harvesting is one of the affected harvesting firms. Based at Colby in Texas, from May through November, the company’s six John Deere S770 combines, five John Deere 8345R/chaser bin combinations and 11 Peterbilt trucks, travel through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota and North Dakota, and then back again for a similar route for the maize grain (corn) harvest.

Jim Deibert, who heads up the company, has hired seven UK students to join this season’s harvest crew. “We are expecting the first of them on April 1 for six weeks of training,” he says, “but we really do have no idea when they will arrive. It might be a case of foregoing the training if they arrive late and putting them straight to work, which is far from ideal.”

It is impossible to plan at the moment, he adds. “One thing that is certain is whether the government is ready or not crops still need to be harvested. It is a new and challenging situation for us but I have faith that things will work out and one way or another we will make it happen.”

British company Harvest Support Usa-Uk managed to get five guys out on flights just ahead of the travel ban, but Paul Hore, who runs the company with his wife Mary, says this is it for now and that no J1 student or H-2A work visas are currently being issued.

“We have 27 people to go out to eight different custom cutting crews this season and only five have gone so far,” he said. “Nothing is possible at the moment and the first combines will start rolling in southern Texas early May. We are hopeful of seeing some movement by the middle of April, but it could be as late as June or July.”

Mr Hore adds that harvesting firms really depend on European help. “This could not have come at a worse time for them and our thoughts go out to all the companies we work with.”

Finally, U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc (USCHI) association of professional custom harvesters has called for the public and government to consider the ag industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are an essential part of the food supply chain and must be allowed to continue our work,” says USCHI president Glen Jantzen, and owner of Jantzen Harvesting in Nebraska.

Concerns specific to the custom harvester industry that the board is working to combat include H-2A workers. “Finding employees is the number one concern in our industry,” he said. “Without our overseas workers, our businesses simply cannot complete their jobs.”