Restrictions hinder U.S. custom harvest crews

Chad Olsen, who owns and operates Olsen Custom Farms out of Hendricks, Minnesota, said the amount and cost of paperwork required by the Canadian government for his crew to come north has become onerous. | File photo

Producers have been forced to make other arrangements, such as buying equipment and making deals with neighbours

Some Canadian farmers who typically employ American custom harvesters had to make other arrangements this year because of COVID-19 and other regulatory changes.

Chad Olsen, who owns and operates Olsen Custom Farms out of Hendricks, Minnesota, said the amount and cost of paperwork required by the Canadian government for his crew to come north has become onerous.

Virus fears and travel restrictions this year delayed the arrival of migrant workers into the United States, causing a ripple effect.

“We are not coming into Canada this fall,” he said. “It’s very unusual.”

Olsen uses foreign workers from South Africa who usually arrive in late March.

But starting paperwork for them to get into Canada on April 1 still isn’t enough time for it all to be processed, Olsen said.

“The last few years I’ve literally had to fly all my paperwork to the border when my boys get there the middle to the end of August,” he said. “This year, with the whole COVID thing going on and nobody is working at the offices, I just elected to tell my farmer that we have to make a different plan.”

He took on more work in North Dakota, and the one large Saskatchewan operator Olsen normally helps at harvests ended up buying his own combines.

Trevor Carlson of Carlson Harvesting Inc. in Goodridge, Minn., has a similar story.

“Our foreign help, we couldn’t get them in the country and trying to find responsible help, that is impossible,” he said. “The guys that we have are barely qualified to do what we’re doing and they can’t get across the border and it’s a mess.”

Carlson usually harvests for the Wood family at Pense, Sask., but in spring it was obvious that wasn’t going to happen.

The Woods ended up buying two combines, a grain cart, a tractor and a set of Super Bs to get their crop off.

“Our guy, Carlson Harvesting, was having trouble getting their staff into the U.S. as they rely heavily on guys from Australia, New Zealand and the (United Kingdom),” said Levi Wood. “We just had to make the call to give us time to make some other arrangements.”

That also included working out a deal with another local farmer who does custom work to work with them, too.

These decisions are leaving all involved with high-priced equipment that has to earn its keep this harvest.

In Carlson’s case, he is focusing on his own farm and his combines haven’t left his yard while a business partner who is slowly taking over the business took a crew on the road in the U.S.

Carlson said finding qualified domestic workers is nearly impossible.

“Because they’re lazy,” he said bluntly.

Younger Americans want short work weeks and weekends off, he said, and even if he could find workers, they often can’t get into Canada because of infractions such as impaired driving convictions.

Olsen said it would be much cheaper to hire Americans but they don’t want to travel or put in the hours.

“Every American worker I’ve had come with us this year, other than my full-time American guys, haven’t lasted,” Olsen said. “Two to three weeks away from home and it’s like, ‘I got to go home and see mom and my girlfriend.’ ”

He wouldn’t rule out returning to Canada, but said something had to change to make the process easier.

Although agricultural workers are deemed essential through COVID, the shutdown of consulates made it even more difficult this year.

The first half of Olsen’s workers made it out of South Africa before flights shut down but the second group didn’t arrive until early July. And that was after Olsen and some others chartered a flight full of H-2A workers.

H-2A is the common visa used for migrant agricultural workers.

Through June, he put his kids, wife and crews’ family members to work until the remainder could get there.

“It’s not a good situation for anybody really,” he said.

Shawn Thacker, president of the Association of Canadian Custom Harvesters, said Canadian crews heading south didn’t face too many obstacles. The agreement allowing essential workers to cross was critical.

The 14-day quarantine upon return to Canada isn’t difficult when the crew is still working together, he said.

He said he was able to fill his crew but knows others who struggled.

“We’re competing against the government with CERB,” he said, referring to the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit implemented after COVID shutdowns.

While he pays his employees more than CERB there is the matter of finding qualified people willing to work.

Carlson described himself as “one of those” who thinks the COVID risk was overblown but said the industry will be dealing with the disruption it caused for years.

“Hopefully, the farm will do good enough to pull us through it,” he said.

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