South African workers fill Mandan area farm, ranch labor gap

BISMARCK (AP) — Jacque Myburgh is grateful to American farmers.
Since 2017, the 40-year-old native of Pretoria, South Africa, has worked on farms and ranches in the Dakotas under a federal work visa program for temporary agriculture workers. He helped the Hatzenbuhlers of Diamond J Angus west of Mandan with cattle and calving this winter before heading to his summer work on a South Dakota farm.
“It means a lot for somebody like me to have people like American farmers open up their doors for us to come work for them so that we can provide for our families back home,” Myburgh said in March, the day before he left for his new job.
Rancher Stephanie Hatzenbuhler said her family had trouble finding help for their farm and ranch — part of the larger workforce shortage racking North Dakota with as many as 30,000 job openings.
Hatzenbuhler has participated in the H-2A program for three years now, going through a third party for paperwork and arrangements for winter and summer seasonal workers, who are all South Africans.
For the most part, they’ve worked out, though the family’s selected worker for this summer broke his ankle the first day on the job and afterward took a trucking job for a Hoople-area farmer.
“You have to find the right guy, and there’s expense in everything,” Hatzenbuhler told the Bismarck Tribune .
Replacing her summer worker came amid the tough work of planting and calving, but she found a replacement from Williston who had been laid off, which was better than buying another plane ticket to bring a new worker from South Africa.
Winett Mackenzie, 20, comes from a farming background in Fouriesburg, South Africa, and will be with the Hatzenbuhlers until December. He became an H-2A worker for the farming experience and to see how North Dakota farms operate. He plans to return home to farm with his dad after two or three years in the U.S.
Myburgh also plans to spend three years in the U.S. before returning home to his wife, Tonia, and son, Kyle. He worked on his father’s farm until it sold, then had stints as a butcher, engineer and a worker in the jewelry industry, in which his wife worked as an importer.
He enjoyed farming and wanted to work in the U.S., both of which he’s been doing on winter and summer shifts for two years while providing for his wife’s courses in wedding and event planning and for his son’s schooling.
Hatzenbuhler said she knows a few other people who use H-2A workers. As an employer, she has to provide lodging and a vehicle for the worker. Mackenzie will be helping with planting, fencing, haying and harvest.
H-2A workers, mostly from South Africa, have been steadily increasing in the state the last two fiscal years, from 1,500 in 2017 to 1,700 in 2018, according to North Dakota Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer, who also was labor commissioner until recently. The agriculture sector is a bit different when it comes to the statewide workforce shortage, she added.
“The ag workforce is an interesting thing to try to understand in North Dakota because it’s an industry where you don’t see the same type of employment practice as you would in non-ag-related industries,” Kommer said. Farmers and ranchers don’t often post job openings, she added.
Hatzenbuhler said she prefers workers with previous experience in the U.S. so she can call former employers with questions.
Despite a rocky start to this summer, she said, finding Mackenzie was worth the strain. She’s been happy with him.
“(When) these guys come here, they’re not partying or having fun with other South Africans, they pretty much live with you,” Hatzenbuhler said. “They want to work, so that is their main goal because they’re only here for so long and they have to go back, so you get a lot done with them.”