COVID-19 cuts down custom harvester's crew

Mikkel Pates
Forum News Service

HENDRICKS, Minn. — South African workers have helped grow the Olsen Custom Farming into a custom combining powerhouse.

Chad Olsen, 51, runs the company with his wife, Pam, from a tree-lined farmstead near Hendricks, near the Minnesota-South Dakota state line. The team includes his brothers, Travis, the chief financial officer, Corey, a diesel mechanic, as well as several key employees. The Olsens have four daughters and one son, from fourth grade to a freshman in college. Pam can run equipment but is busy with the family.

The company had been scheduled to get 60 employees from South Africa, but only 30 have gotten through because the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down South African air travel.

When South African issues hit the news, the phone started ringing off the hook. “Our customers are wondering if we’re coming — if we can get our help,” Chad says. “They’re nervous because they’ve heard about crews that are quitting, crews that can’t get their help. Crews that are scared to travel because of this COVID-19.”

After the first calls, Olsen Custom Farming called every customer to assure them it would be business as usual. “We’ve got Plan B if we can’t get our South Africans in time,” he says. “My kids can all run equipment, so … yeah. With help from family and friends and college people, we’ll be covered for the month of June and July if we can’t get these guys here. It’s just going to be tough for me.”

Family style

In 2002, the Olsens were running about three or four combines. The company had been using American high school students. When students went back to school, they started renting surplus combines to farmers.

Today, the company has nine to 10 crews on the road. The Olsens employ 75 to 80 people. That includes about 55 South Africans and about 25 full-time year-round guys.

The H-2A workers are approved for 283 days on their visas — nine months and change. No matter when or if they get to the U.S., they still must go back to South Africa on Dec. 15.

The U.S. Custom Harvester’s organization has been lobbying for a commercial driver’s license exemption for custom harvesters, which is a perennial request. “If we don’t have enough legal drivers, there are a lot of people who won’t get their crop out of the field.”

Amanda Appel, the office manager for the company, says getting the South Africans set to work usually takes advanced paperwork to get Social Security and bank accounts set up. The newcomers must get a regular driver’s license, as well as a commercial driver’s license. “It’s basically a six-week program to get it all done,” Chad says. “We’ve got it figured out, it just takes time.”

Appel says it’s a new dimension to keep crews safe — using hand sanitizer. Crews are sequestered in safe houses for a quarantine period and then split to limit any COVID-19 issues.

Shuttle shuffle

The company uses 75 to 80 combines in a year. Half are new every year.

They run half of the combines with their own crews and rent out half to farmers. The fleet also includes some 40 trucks, plus tractors and grain carts. Anything bought new gets set up in their own shop.

Olsen crews travel from Texas to Canada, cutting wheat all summer. They go back to Kansas to harvest corn and then work their way north again.

Harvest crews go on the road on May 15. Once on the road, the crews stay in “bunkhouse” campers.

The South Africans range from ages 19 to 30. “Some of our best help is people who have never been raised on a farm,” Chad says. “We can teach them how WE do it.” American workers who can do the work often have other options where they are off at 5 o’clock and don’t have to travel. Road crews have few down days and cook for themselves.

“There’s not as many people interested in agriculture anymore, that want to be on the road, doing what we do. That’s the problem,” he says. Employees are “paid very well” and some full-time workers have been with him from 10 years to 22 years.

Year-round employees with families may be on the road three to four months and work on the home farm for harvest. In the off-months, the year-round crews are busy with the equipment — harvest trucks, trailers and carts

They serve about 200 farmers in a typical growing season. The Olsens get some of their H-2A workers word-of-mouth, but also work through an agent in Missouri and a couple of agents in South Africa.

The company was hoping the South African border would open April 16, but that was extended to May 4. “The real struggle is, are they going to open up?” Chad says. “And if they do open up, then it’s such a tight frame to get everybody here for the new guys to get their driver’s license.” Chad says.

Chad has figured out how to get a charter flight with H-2A workers out of South Africa, but hasn’t pursued it. He says he thinks that within a few hours, he could have the plane full of H-2A workers. “I’m hoping the border opens up so we don’t have to do that,” he says. “If I can get my guys, it’s business as usual, and hopefully nobody gets sick.”

Chad and Pam Olsen of Hendricks, Minn., say they are using family and neighbor labor as a Plan B with half of their South African crew unable to leave South Africa during COVID-19 travel bans.
South African native Christian Pistorius works on the feeder house on a combine. Pistorius has been in the U.S. for 12 years, including six years permanently after he married an American.
Louis Leroux, left, from South Africa, has worked for the Olsen Custom Farming operation for seven seasons.