Wichita — Already frustrated by growing bureaucratic delays for hiring foreign workers, the nation's custom grain cutters were hard hit this wheat harvest season by a short-lived Texas rule that required drivers to have a year's residency before they could get a commercial driver's license.
"They were more concerned about illegals coming in from Mexico," said Elaine Flaming, a former custom harvester who now runs Agri Placements International in Fairview, Okla. "That law went into effect not knowing how it was going to affect other agricultural operations - and it has been a very severe struggle."
Their industry group, U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc., lobbied to overturn the restriction, which had gone into effect earlier this year. The latest version, which the governor recently signed, will allow migrant workers to hold a temporary commercial driver's license as long as their visa is valid, said Tim Baker, operations manager for U.S. Custom Harvesters.
"It is going to be September before Senate Bill 1260 goes into effect, before they allow temporary commercial licenses to be issued," Baker said. "But September is better than never."
By that time, the Texas wheat harvest will be finished.
Relying on foreign workers
U.S. custom cutters depend heavily on foreign workers - mostly coming from Australia, South Africa, Romania and Ukraine - to run the massive combines and drive the grain trucks that follow the ripening grain crops from south Texas to Canada each year.
About 75 percent of custom-cutting crews are made up of foreign laborers, Flaming said. The seasonal workers, hired through an agricultural guest worker program called the H-2A program, typically stay in the United States about eight months combining wheat, corn, cotton and other farm crops.
"If not for the foreign laborers, most of our harvesting operations would cease and the grain would not be cut. ... They are willing to work and they are willing to come - and they are good workers," she said.
Custom harvesters Perry and Candice Hoffman hired seven workers - six from South Africa and one from Honduras - to run their combines this season. Since the Hoffmans are based in South Dakota, they were able to get their crew's CDL licenses through their own state and were unaffected by the new Texas regulation.
One reason the Hoffmans like to hire workers from South Africa is that its harvest season, like Australia's, is opposite that of the U.S., allowing its experienced farm workers to work seasonally here. Workers from those countries also speak English, making it easier for them to pass the CDL test and to communicate with others in the crew.
"It is not a cheaper method, but we had no American reply to our ads," Candice Hoffman said in a phone interview from Texas, where her crews were cutting. "The foreign help is a reliable source of help we rely on. I don't know what harvesters would do without it."
The cutting season runs from May until November, so high school and college students can't work the needed time period, she said, and it is hard to attract others because the work isn't full time.
Time consuming process
But like other custom harvesters in this country, the Hoffmans are becoming more worried about the increasing time it takes to get foreign workers approved through H-2A.
They applied for this season's workers in December, but didn't get the first ones until April 25, Candice Hoffman said. Then the workers have to apply for Social Security numbers and pass their CDL tests before harvest.
"It is very stressful to wonder if you are going to get that help, because you absolutely need them," she said.
By law, H-2A must process applications within 45 days, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The agency contends there is no systemic backlog or delay. Applications are forwarded to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for further processing.
At Homeland Security's customs and immigration service, regional manager Marilu Cabrera said she was not aware it was taking longer to process H-2A applications, but acknowledged there may be delays overseas.
A fee increase is scheduled July 30 to recover the costs of doing business, Cabrera said, because the agency is fee-based and has been losing money.
Minnesota custom cutter Al Westlake was running his combines this week with just one South African worker in a field just outside of Mullinville in southwest Kansas. He has hired as many as five foreign workers in a season, but the rising paperwork costs have made it more difficult.
Fees and other costs used to amount to about $275 per foreign worker, but have more than doubled in recent years, he said.
"The cost has gotten to be so high and the red tape so much to get them here, it is not feasible anymore," Westlake said.