H2A Deibert

Zack Kjenseth, a J-1-visa worker from England, and Jim Deibert, owner of JKD Harvesting, in Colby, Kan., April 12. Deibert has quit using H-2A-visa workers because of the cost.

Jim Deibert has been a contract wheat and corn harvester in Colby, Kan., for 50 years and, at 68, he’s not ready to retire.

He feels good, loves his work and most of his customers have been with him more than 25 years. One in North Dakota for 49 years.

Deibert has depended on foreign guestworkers to fill half of his crew for many seasons because he can’t find enough domestic workers.

“Kids don’t want to work in the dirt. They want weekends and holidays off and we can’t do that. In harvest and farming, you have to keep rolling,” said Deibert, a past president of U.S. Custom Harvesters.

It costs him more to hire foreign workers and with a 5.4% increase in the wage for H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers this year, he dropped the program. The H-2A hourly minimum went from $13.64 to $14.38 in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

“It’s not just the wage, but all the stuff that goes with it including the flight over (from England) and back,” he says. “The U.S. Department of Labor is trying to kill the program with regulations. It needs to be moved to USDA and made more affordable and less cumbersome.”

A lot of Midwest farmers started using H-2A in the last five years because of inability to get workers, he said.

Deibert’s business, JKD Harvesting, is located in Colby, population 5,400, 240 miles east of Denver.

Last year, he harvested 47,000 acres of wheat and corn. The wheat from May 20 in Texas to Labor Day in North Dakota and high-moisture field corn from Labor Day to Dec. 15. He did a small amount of soybeans and milo.

He used 15 to 22 employees and ran six combines, 11 semi trucks, two service trucks, two pickups and moved mobile homes for housing.

About half his workers were either H-2A or J-1-visa foreign guestworkers all from England.

This year he’s hiring six J-1 and signed up domestic help for the rest.

The J-1-visa exchange visitor program has 15 categories all allowing foreign nationals to come to the U.S. to teach, study, conduct research demonstrate special skills or receive on the job training.

Deibert began using an agricultural internship category in 1991, hiring students who had just finished English agricultural schooling to fill out his crew and give them experience.

“The ones we get are the cream of the ag-school crop. They come for experience and adventure having heard of the vast American wheat harvest,” he said. “They return and get good jobs on farms or equipment dealerships in England.”

The program worked well for Deibert but 10 years ago an Obama administration rule change prevented him from hiring the same J-1 employees for a second year. He started using the H-2A program to get the same young men back a second season.

H-2A rules require him to pay his H-2A and domestic workers all the H-2A minimum wage.

The J-1 program allows him to pay his J-1 and domestic workers the Kansas minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. So he will save money. He will pay $10 per hour this season or $2,000 per month, plus room and board with a bonus if he does well and they show good work, he said.

His J-1 workers have arrived for the season and are undergoing 45 days of equipment and safety training before harvest starts. Deibert also arranges and pays for them to get their commercial drivers licenses.

His wife cooks for the crew, bringing them a hot meal in the field at noon and providing an evening sack lunch.

“We feed them well and have a happier crew,” he said.

Deibert supported the National Council of Agricultural Employers’ lawsuit earlier this year to rescind the H-2A minimum wage to 2018 levels. A federal judge ruled against that. Deibert says the program needs to be moved from DOL to USDA and improved.

Central Washington field reporter

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