Learn, earn and come back to farm

Young South Africans appear to be in high demand in the United States, especially as seasonal farmworkers.

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This trend is becoming more popular amongst agricultural graduates who, instead of taking up permanent jobs in South Africa, first go overseas to get work experience, earn good money and travel. Wilma den Hartigh reports.

Agricultural training institutions, lecturers and those who have worked on farms overseas, highly recommend this experience. They agree that agricultural graduates with international work experience have more technical know-how, life skills and a broader perspective of farming when they return to South Africa.

Prof Johan Willemse from the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of the Free State encourages graduates to work overseas, particularly if they work in an agricultural field related to their specialisation.

The US is a vast country and prospective farmers can get experience in farming from desert to tropical conditions. In addition to earning good money, the training and contacts are invaluable.

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“Think it is a wonderful experience. Young farmers who have been there make quicker progress here because they see what can be done with their farming,” Prof Willemse says, adding that US technology and farming practices are 10 to 15 years ahead of SA.

“If you want to learn something, go to the US.” Many large technology companies are US-based and concentrate on markets first, before marketing their technology to countries such as SA. “Have a huge market – about one million commercial farmers,” he says.

Although countries such as the UK also offer good opportunities to learn about farming, Willemse says farming conditions are very different to those of the US. The farming units are smaller and not as extensive as large livestock and grain farms. Marie Bezuidenhoudt, cellar manager and lecturer at the Cape Institute for Agricultural Training at Elsenburg, says it’s popular for winemaker graduates to go to the US, France or Australia to work in cellars during the harvesting period.

Alternatively, they can apply for permanent positions as “cellar hands” at local cellars. In this job, they will act as an assistant to the winemaker or do other tasks such as measuring juice and pressing grapes. Belinda Möhr from Employment USA Placements, an agency that recruits candidates for seasonal employment overseas, says the demand for farmworkers has grown considerably as a result of rapid growth in the farming sector.

Last year, the agency had about 80 to 90 employers of which 75% were in the farming sector. Möhr says farmers also prefer to employ South Africans as they are more reliable and hard working. The demand for seasonal labour in agriculture is currently very high. This is due to the crackdown on illegal immigrants in the US. “There are farmers who would have to close shop if it wasn’t for seasonal workers from SA,” she said. Möhr adds most of the applicants, including young farmers, who take up farming employment in the US, save money before returning to South Africa to start their own enterprises.

From the horse’s mouth Josef van Dyk recently returned from working on grain, livestock and bee farms in the US. Although he has a farming background (his father was a livestock and crop farmer in Namibia), he says he has learned something new about farming daily and occasionally the US farmers also learned about the way South Africans farm.

Van Dyk says you can earn a lot of money, but it depends on how much money you save and the number of hours you have worked. “I went there because I wanted to see how farming works in other countries and I wanted to save money. But you must decide if you are there to save money or to party,” he says. He worked on a grain farm in North Dakota where he worked with maize and soya. He was involved in the planting process – ploughing, planting and harvesting.

He helped with construction projects such as erecting silos and building elevator towers. “We worked the hardest during harvesting because we had to get everything off the land before it started snowing. The working hours were long.”
He also worked on a beef farm in Onida, South Dakota. He was directly involved with the animals, inoculation, branding, attaching ear tags and castrating. He gained experience on a bee farm in Idaho, Montana, where he extracted honey, cleaned hives by scraping off excess wax and built new hives. He remembers that it wasn’t always easy to adapt to a foreign country, but the people het met were very hospitable. “But there’s no place like home.

The US winters are bitterly cold and the snow is deep. But summer is great because South Africans are used to hot weather,” he says. If the opportunity arises, he would like to farm in SA. In 2000, Kosie du Plessis, a farmer in Smithfield in the southern Free State went to the US to work on a Saddle Horse farm in Kentucky. He worked there for nine months after completing his agricultural studies. “My main farming operation is sheep, but horses are my hobby and I wanted to learn about them.

He cautions it is hard work and the farmers are very strict about working hours. “It is not an 8am to 5pm job. You can start working at 6am and only go home when your work is finished.” Although tasks such as cleaning stables were very tiring, one perk of the job was that he travelled to horse shows in other states. “I did get to see a bit of the country in this way.” One of the advantages of working in the US is that living costs are low. “You can survive easily. I got paid about $250 a week for a 50- to 60-hour week, six days a week, and I didn’t pay for housing,” Du Plessis says. “If you haven’t decided what to do in life this is good way to do it. You are away from your parents and you can figure things out for yourself.”

How do you go about it?

Jobs in agriculture are available in harvesting, crop farming, feedlots, pigs, horses, poultry, dairy, beekeeping and ranching.

Experiences in Israel

After graduating with a BAgric. from the University of the Free State, Francois Vorster worked on a banana and avocado farm in Israel for six months. He wanted to learn more about irrigation and fertilisation, his area of specialisation. He was advised to go to Israel to get the best experience in this field. Francois says although the techniques cannot be applied directly to South African farming because of Israel’s desert conditions, the principles are universal. “What I learned is unmatched,” he says.

After only six years in the game, Francois is already the biggest banana grower in Tzaneen. “I really enjoyed it and I strongly recommend it,” he says. Apart from learning about farming, the experience also taught him the discipline of working on a farm. “You get a very good idea of the responsibility you have as a farmer. It broadens your vision and you’ll do things differently
on the farm when you come back,” he says.

Furthermore, he got a better understanding of the other facets of farm work. “If you are going to step into a managerial position on a farm, it will teach you about farm work. Do it before you come back to the farm,” he says