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U.S. Farmers Look To Locals Who've Lost Their Jobs For Help In The Fields


Farmers in the U.S. are planting their fields, everything from wheat to cotton to corn. Many farmers rely on foreign guest workers to help sow their crops, but the pandemic is getting in the way. As Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin reports, some farmers are instead looking to hire much closer to home.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: In central Illinois, Pete Pistorius runs a huge family-owned farm. It sprawls over six different counties, where Pistorius likes to say they raise corn, soybeans and kids. Think rows and rows of field crops extending as far as you can see, dotted with industrial-sized tractors and combines kicking up soil.

To help get it all planted, Pistorius has relied on a visa program allowing farmers to hire foreign nationals for temporary ag jobs. The workers usually start planting in the spring and stay through harvest season. This year, he contracted with a crew from South Africa to start March 25.

PETE PISTORIUS: Here we are, sitting two to three weeks later past that point, and I don't see us getting any closer to getting them over here.

CRONIN: That's because of the lockdown order there, sparked by the pandemic. Other farmers relying on workers from Guatemala, Honduras, even as far as Nepal are facing similar restrictions.

PISTORIUS: And, you know, you just have an expectation of, you know, those were guys that were going to be in seats of tractors or had specific roles for the spring season for us. And so, you know, your first reaction is, you know, what are you going to do?

CRONIN: And then it hit him. There's now a group of newly unemployed people much closer to home. So Pete Pistorius reached out to a commercial plumber, a few high school kids no longer in school and a guy who worked maintenance for the local school district. Derek Brown (ph) was furloughed after the district shut down all their schools, so he came to work at Pistorius Farms.

DEREK BROWN: My grandfather farmed. And ever since I was a little kid, I always loved farming. I mean, I enjoy it. I really do. Farming is not easy work.

CRONIN: This makeshift employment arrangement is playing out in other states, too. In Arkansas, Congressman Rick Crawford launched a program connecting farmers to locals looking for work.

RICK CRAWFORD: We're not setting the world on fire. But these are people that didn't have jobs that now do. And these are farmers who needed people on their farms, and now they have them.

CRONIN: Crawford says states like California, Texas and Florida are taking similar approaches. But there's a challenge. While farming is labor-intensive, it often also requires technical skills. It's software that helps drive some tractors and high-tech combines. On his farm, Pete Pistorius used the visa program to hire workers with specific training and experience.

PISTORIUS: We're going to kind of have to pick through our labor force and see which people are placed better for different jobs, whether that be a planter guy or a sprayer or a tillage or some other job.

CRONIN: Pistorius is used to training workers on the job, but usually they do that job for months or years at a time. With this pandemic-driven change, his current crew could be called back to their regular jobs any day. And that could be well before harvest season, when they're needed more urgently. But it's not harvesting that's on farmers' minds right now. They just need to find someone - anyone - to help get their seeds in the ground.

For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dana Cronin is a reporter based in Urbana, Illinois. She covers food and agriculture issues in Illinois for Harvest. Dana started reporting in southern Colorado at member station 91.5 KRCC, where she spent three years writing about everything from agriculture to Colorado’s highest mountain peaks. From there she went to work at her hometown station, KQED, in San Francisco. While there she covered the 2017 North Bay Fires. She spent the last two years at NPR’s headquarters in Washington D.C., producing for shows including Weekend Edition and All Things Considered.