Posted 9/22/15 (Tue)
By Sydney Glasoe Caraballo
Sporting a black tee with the acronym, You Only Live Once, Andrew Swart scrambles up into the cab of a John Deere combine to cut a test sample of soybeans. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and some of the crop is still a bit green and carrying moisture. He and Brent Hay, his employer, examine the sample cut, and he teases Hay that they’ve cut everything else with some moisture so why stop now. Swart knows Hay would rather get the crop off than take it easy today.
When asked what he’ll do once he returns home to South Africa the end of October, Swart grins and says, “Rest.”
Several miles northwest of Swart, Botha Liddell has parked a semi tractor-trailer and finished unloading spring wheat into bins for Nystuen Farms. This is the final field of wheat to be cut for the year, and Liddell says harvest’s end is in sight.
Johann Nel pulls up in the tractor and grain cart, and the two discuss the acres of soybeans yet to be harvested. They speak in English but admit that when they occasionally visit other South Africans in North Dakota for a barbecue, it is comforting to hear the familiar accent from home and speak Afrikaans, their native language.
Liddell, Nel and Swart are all workers employed in Divide County; they have all worked in North Dakota before, and their time here ranges from six to nine months depending on the needs of the farm operation and their agricultural work visas.
Swart was working as a custom combiner in South Dakota in 2013 when Brent Hay asked if he could ride with Swart while he combined one of Hay’s durum fields. By the end of the ride, Hay told Swart if he ever wanted experience farming from start to finish in a season, Hay would welcome him.
“He’s a good fit,” says Carol Hay as they visit with Andrew in her kitchen.
Swart had completed two years of study for a mechanical engineering degree in South Africa when his funds ran out. He began working at a dairy farm outside of Cape Town to save money for school, but he was only earning about $650 a month. A friend told him he could easily earn that in a week as a farm laborer in the U.S.
“It was a dream to come here,” Swart says.
Swart is single but also supports his mother back home. He says both the money and the opportunity to experience America drew him here.
Liddell and Nel are working their sixth and seventh seasons here and have worked together in England and the U.S.
Divide County and its rural community remind the pair of the small farming town where they grew up in South Africa.
“Everyone is friendly and all smiles,” Liddell says. “You find that people in rural communities are like that all over the world.”
For Swart who grew up in the suburbs of Cape Town, which has a population of several million people, it was surprising to encounter friendly strangers.
“Here you can walk up to a random guy and talk,” he says. “You don’t do that in Cape Town.”
Swart finds suprising local farmer’s sense of security. “You’d never leave equipment in the field with the keys in the ignition in South Africa. It would be stolen,” Swart says. “You’ve got another life here.”
Swart becomes quiet when asked about international news reports detailing robberies and murders on farms in South Africa. There were 277 attacks on farms and 67 farm murders in 2014, according to statistics released by AfriForum and Transvaal Agricultural Union in South Africa. Swart says such violence does occur, but he’d rather not talk about it because he worries about his family’s safety and his own when he returns home.
“I like to keep negativity out of my life,” he says.
Liddell’s response is also cautious.
“Put it this way: there is a small element of lawlessness there,” he says.
Nel is more direct. Right before he took a job as farm foreman near his hometown in 2013, an older farming couple was murdered about 15 miles away.
“To know the people getting attacked and killed just makes it harder. It’s a real concern,” he says. “We had electric fencing around the farmstead and watchdogs and guns.”
Another difference between farmers here and South Africa is the “work hard, play hard” mentality. Liddell, Nel and Swart all agree that South Africans really cherish their holidays and time off. They mention camping on the coast, fishing, water skiing and golf as some of their favorite activities. For these three, travel is also an enjoyable part of the equation.
Nel was fresh out of high school when he jumped on a plane to Dubai for a job.
“There were Middle Easterners in traditional clothing, and it hit me pretty hard that I was in a different country,” he said, not to mention, the heat.
Liddell convinced Nel to join him for work at a horse racetrack and farm in England, and from there, they decided to get agricultural visas for the U.S.
Nel, who says it is very expensive to pay for college in South Africa, wasn’t afraid to explore options beyond his country’s borders. “If you are a young, white male without an education in South Africa, it’s tough,” he says.
Even after securing employment as a farm foreman near his home in 2013, he made about half the income in a management role that he makes here as a farm laborer in nine months.
Liddell, whose father owns a cattle and sheep ranch in South Africa, says he requested to work in North Dakota because the hours available and money earned is really good.
“You sacrifice to come over here and leave family behind so it needs to be worth it,” he says.
Liddell is building his nest egg so that he and his wife, Francoisne, can take over her mother’s farm someday. The Liddells plan to spend approximately five more seasons in the U.S. Liddell uses his time between each season to transform his mother-in-law’s farm into a game farm and has already purchased spring buck and installed game fencing.
While Liddell is confident of his future plans, Nel says he’s not certain where he’ll be several years from now. Nel’s girlfriend back home is studying to be a teacher and is open to travel.
Swart also isn’t sure where he’ll end up. He is continuing to save money to earn his degree, but that doesn’t mean he’ll secure a job in South Africa.
“I have to do what is good for me,” he says.