Custom harvester Al Lutz's crew traveled thousands of miles to report for work on March 21. Those 20 employees, all from South Africa, will work for Lutz until late November.

The men are here under the U.S. Department of Labor's seasonal ag employment program. Before arriving, they obtained H2A visas from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

With the exception of two full-time truck drivers, Lutz relies on the H2A program to provide the manpower he needs to chop and truck forages in seven states.

“My business depends on these men,” says Lutz, of Sulphur Springs, TX. “Without them, I would probably have to sell out.”

The nature of his business makes it difficult to find employees.

“We're gone so much of the time,” he says. “This job doesn't work well for men with wives and children, but it doesn't seem to interest single guys, either.”

Lutz and his crew travel from late March to mid-November to harvest ryegrass, bermudagrass, corn and sorghum. They work in Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Lutz owns three choppers and 20 trucks. He used to subcontract with others to swath, rake and pack the forages, but now has the equipment and labor to provide those services, too.

When they're on the road, the men live in mobile homes or bunkhouses. Each sleeps eight or nine men and has a full kitchen, bathrooms, showers, washer, dryer and satellite television.

Lutz started using the H2A program six years ago when he lived in Kansas. That first year, he hired six men.

“I had exhausted all other avenues for trying to find labor,” he recalls. “One time I ran help-wanted ads for two months in local and state newspapers, plus on the radio. I only got two calls and neither man was allowed to leave the state.”

For the last three years, he's worked with Heleen van Tonder, Golden Opportunities International, McGregor, IA. Originally from South Africa, van Tonder has three recruiting offices there.

“When a South African applies for the program, the first thing I do is run a background check,” she says. “Then I match potential employees with employers.”

U.S. employers can interview job applicants by phone. If an employer wants to proceed, van Tonder must run two newspaper ads and a radio ad in the employer's local area.

“If there aren't available Americans to fill the positions, H2A workers can have the job opportunity,” says van Tonder, who also finds employees for large hog and dairy operations.

The foreign laborers must be paid every two weeks, be reimbursed for airfare, receive adequate housing and be covered under their employer's workers' compensation policy. They must also be paid the effective wage rate, which is set by the Department of Labor and varies from state to state. It's $9.18/hour in Wisconsin and $7.89/hour in Texas.

Overtime doesn't have to be paid and no taxes are withheld from the earnings, which cuts down on paperwork, says Lutz.

Employees must be paid for a minimum of 36 hours per week.

That regulation was frustrating for Dick Kraus, Elkhart Lake, WI, who hired three South Africans last year.

“Keeping them working and paying them for 36 hours/week was no problem most of the time. But when the weather turned dry and haylage harvesting slowed, it was harder to do,” says Kraus, who owns Kraus Custom Forage Harvesting with his brother Bill.

Once the men arrived, Kraus learned they weren't as adept at truck driving as they had told him on the telephone.

“But on the bright side, they were very anxious to learn,” says Kraus. “They wanted to work as many hours as possible and didn't need time to attend family functions and other summer activities.”

More than half the men Lutz hires return for more than one year. “You have to be patient,” he says. “I don't make them do anything I won't do.”

Van Tonder charges an administration fee to prepare paperwork. The employer also pays for the ads and the labor certification cost, which is $100 plus $10/employee.

The program isn't limited to hiring from South Africa, but that's the only country van Tonder works with.

“Due to the high unemployment rate there, many skilled workers are available to come and work here,” she says. “They're reliable and willing to learn.”

Adds Lutz: “We hire South African workers because that's the country we started with and that's where our agent is from. Many custom harvesters we know hire workers from New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands and other countries.

“We've had our share of workers who weren't too good, but for the most part, they're polite and want to work hard. When it's summer here, it's winter in South Africa, so the timing works out well for them.”

Other companies that help procure H2A labor include Agri Placements International, Fairview, OK; Employment USA, Aberdeen, SD; JEF International, Inc., Gower, MO; and Southern Impact, Tulsa, OK.