MOUNT VERNON — Chet Edinger knows farming isn't for everyone.
Looking to find the right worker for the right job, Edinger and his brother Charlie, co-owners of Edinger Brothers Partnership in Mount Vernon since 1998, turned to the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program.
The visa program allowed the hiring of four native South Africans — Rudi Moller, Jan du Plessis, Willie Steyn and Petrus Vermeulen — to fit the needs of a crop farm that does not need to be completely staffed all year. The South African imports see an increase in pay and a firsthand farming education, while Edinger Brothers gets quality labor whose sole obligation is work for 10 months out of the year.
“Anybody that’s a good employee is going to stay where they are and they’ll be taken care of,” Chet Edinger said. “The H-2A program fills in those gaps of the seasonality of our business. We don’t need a full crew year-round, so they can come in during our growing season and they can make enough during the growing season and either take the winter off or work odd jobs at home.”
South Africans apply for the H-2A program largely due to an opportunity for increased wages, as the average farm worker in the United States makes $15 per hour, according to United States Department of Agriculture, while the average South African farmer brings in 335,000 rands per year, which is the equivalent of $19,898 per year in the United States.
Of the 242,000 H-2A workers — which account for 10 percent of the U.S. agricultural workforce — who came to the United States in 2018, 2 percent were from South Africa, which is second to the 91 percent coming from Mexico.
Edinger heard about the program from his custom-combiner years ago, but requirements of housing and worker’s compensation insurance initially prevented them from doing so. Labor availability in the Midwest eventually led the crop farmers to dip into the pool four years ago to supplement their staff of seven hands during the summer.
The program allows a worker to be employed for 10 months per year, and every third year, the number is limited to nine. So, workers arrive in Mount Vernon in March and typically return to South Africa in December.
Du Plessis was part of the first group hired in 2016 at 18 years old and has worked his way up the ladder, now handling the crop spraying duties on the farm as he saves money to attend college and start his own farm, which already includes a few cattle.
“In the beginning I only wanted to come for two or three years and then get a degree,” du Plessis said. “That’s still the plan, but it just became a little longer than I first anticipated. I like this, and Chet and Charlie treat us well. I like coming back.”
A comforting feeling
The program allows farmers to view resumes and conduct phone interviews for potential workers, with the option to terminate the contract within the first six months.
Edinger has never terminated any of his workers and went from renting two-bedroom apartments for his employees to building living quarters for his workers on the farm.
Many of the workers are grateful for the trust and accommodations provided by the Edingers. While du Plessis is in his fourth year, Steyn and Vermeulen are back for their second years and Moller has already expressed a desire to return next year.
“I’ve heard stories about guys who worked for guys that treated them like s---,” du Plessis said. “The way Chet interviewed us, he just seemed like a nice guy. I had another job (offer) in Devils Lake, North Dakota, and the guy just texted me and said, ‘You’ve got the job, come over.’ I liked the feeling Chet gave me.”
Edinger admits he hasn’t been able to pick up their native language of Afrikaans, but they have gotten him to try biltong, a fried meat comparable to jerky. Edinger also took a visit to South Africa with his wife and stepdaughter in 2018, which is where he happened to meet Steyn and Vermeulen.
Steyn and Vermeulen first arrived in the United States on combine crews. Steyn traveled from Kansas to Montana on an all-South African crew, while Vermeulen went from North Dakota to Texas and back. It allowed them to see the country, but working for the Edingers provided a bit more stability.
“I always wanted to be on a farm, but on a combine crew, you’re just on a combine,” said Steyn, 22. “It’ll help me more back home to experience everything differently. To see the planting, harvesting -- there’s more of a variety of things going on.”
Adjusting to the South Dakota scene
On the surface, arriving in rural South Dakota from another continent may seem like a recipe for culture shock, but not for du Plessis, Steyn and Vermeulen.
All three came from similar small, rural towns in South Africa, so coming to Mount Vernon, which has a population of roughly 450 people, was not a large adjustment. In fact, it helped ease the transition in their new surroundings.
Moller is the lone member of the quartet to not have a farming background and he is the lone member to come from an urban area, hailing from Pretoria, the South African capital that has nearly 750,000 people.
With a history of working on automobiles and motorcycles, Moller has been able to utilize his skills on trucks and tractors on the farm to bridge the gap as he learns how to farm. Since arriving in South Dakota -- one day prior to COVID-19 travel restrictions were imposed -- Moller has taken a liking to small-town lifestyle and is in no hurry to go back to a big city.
“The image I had in my head was a big city like Chicago -- everything you see in the movies,” said Moller, 26. “Small towns are a lot different than I expected it to be and a lot smaller than I expected it to be. … I’d like to come back, especially (Mount Vernon). It’s not too far from Mitchell, not too far from Sioux Falls. I don’t want to go back to the city. I like this, it’s much better.”
All four have managed to make friends in Mount Vernon and Mitchell, often drawing conversations upon the sound of their South African accents. Coming from a country where English is taught as a second language, it has made integrating into local culture much easier. (Although, they do get a kick out of the South Dakotans that think they’ve been plucked out of a scene from The Lion King.)
One of the pitfalls to working on the combine crew during their first year in the United States was that Steyn and Vermeulen did not get to experience much American culture or have an opportunity to intermingle with locals.
“We didn’t mingle much with the U.S. people because you are always traveling in your own group,” Steyn said. “Here, we’ve made some good friends and met some very nice people. We see much more here and experience the culture and what everybody does.”
Not quite home
While Mount Vernon has become a second home, the pull to return to South Africa at the end of their contracts is still strong.
The United States offers better wages and comes devoid of rampant attacks on farmers, as South Africa has seen 111 farm murders since 2018 -- with 12 since April 1, according to ABC News -- as farms have become targets of robbery in the country.
South Africa has long endured social and racial upheaval dating back to the apartheid, which gave whites minority rule and systematic segregation from 1948 until 1994. Whites, which comprise 8 percent of the country's population, still own 72 percent of the land, while Blacks make up 81 percent of the population and own 4 percent of the land.
In 2018, the African National Congress amended the constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation and plans were announced to accelerated land redistribution processes in February. Although, the South African government has been adamant farm attacks are not racially motivated, but rooted in a broader issue of crime in a country that has an unemployment rate of 29 percent.
Edinger has attempted to convince du Plessis to stay in the United States on a full-time basis to earn his college degree, but a lengthy process to obtain a green card and eventually citizenship is a deterrent. Student visas also prevent him from working during his first year of schooling.
Only Moller has expressed serious interest in remaining in the United States as a long-term option some day.
“You have thoughts, but you don’t know what to expect until you’re here,” Moller said. “You check things out before you decide, but it’s definitely a possibility one day.”
All four have yet to settle down with wives or children, so they haven’t closed the door on any possibilities, but the idea of staying in the United States is a long shot.
“I have some family that lives in California now and they moved here 10 years ago when they saw South Africa was having some troubles,” Vermeulen said. “If you think long-term about your children and your grandchildren, it would be a wiser choice, a safer choice to come over. But South Africa is in my blood and I’ll never leave it, even for the most money in the world.”