It’s a hundred degrees and there’s a soft breeze—ideal wheat-cutting weather—as Albert Marais, a migrant farmworker, drives a 16-ton combine through fields outside Denver, hoping to beat the rain. “We cut 360 acres with this one machine yesterday; that’s a pretty good day,” he says. After the work’s done, Marais and his fellow workers will load their equipment onto trucks and make their way to other wheat fields across the Great Plains. “I like Oklahoma,” says Marais’s brother, Jannie. “It’s more like back home.”
“Back home” isn’t Mexico, where the vast majority of the U.S.’s seasonal farmworkers come from—it’s South Africa. After Mexico, the country is the biggest supplier of documented farmworkers to the U.S. Although only a little more than 1,100 South Africans worked on U.S. farms last year, they are coveted by employers because they speak English and have the skills to run high-tech machinery, learned on farms back home.
They’re particularly in demand by the wheat industry. U.S. family farms used to rely on local teens to cut the grain. Now they hire wheat-harvesting companies who recruit South Africans for the work. The roving crews cut grain for thousands of farmers in the course of a single season. It’s a different arrangement than most farmworkers have: The U.S. has special visa rules for beekeepers, shepherds, and harvesters that allow them to cross state lines and work on different farms.
Unlike visa programs for tech workers, there’s no cap on the number of visas set aside for farmworkers. That would change under the immigration reform proposals pending in Congress. The House of Representatives’ plan would limit the number of visas for farmworkers to 500,000 a year. The Senate’s bill allows for 337,000 new workers over three years.
The problem for wheat-cutting companies: While the Senate would retain the special rules for harvesters, they’d disappear under the House’s plan. All kinds of farm laborers would be lumped together in the same pool and subject to the caps. Right now most farmworkers don’t work in the U.S. legally—about 66,000 people got farmworker visas last year, compared with an estimated 1 million undocumented farm laborers. But many more farmworkers are expected to seek work papers under a revamped system that could include a pathway to citizenship. The House and Senate want to cut down on paperwork that stops fruit and vegetable growers from getting papers for the large number of workers they need.
Many wheat cutters don’t arrive until March or April each year. “If we hit the caps early in the season, then we’re frozen out,” says Frank Gasperini, chief executive officer of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. “The cutters are really worried that the program is going toward the needs of groups that have more workers.”
The U.S. wheat crop was worth $17.9 billion last year, almost double that of grapes, oranges, and strawberries combined, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That should count for something, says Jim Deibert, owner of JKD Harvesting, based in Colby, Kan. “We’re following the rules,” he says. “The guys who have been doing it right need to be treated right.”
The sound of Afrikaans and the sight of small-town stores dotted with patrons in Johannesburg rugby team caps have become part of the fabric of the Great Plains, and the Marais brothers and the other South Africans on their crew want it to stay that way. “I think that without them, I might have to quit,” says Leo Stephens, who owns the harvesting company that employs them. “I’d at least have to cut back on my number of combines.”