Don Steinbeisser, Jr. knows the challenges involved in running a business in Sidney, Montana—a small, windswept town on the state’s western border. “I live in a black hole,” says Steinbeisser, who runs a 9,500-acre farm that has been in his family for four generations. “Sidney is one of the farthest places in the country from a big city that there is.” In recent years, when the oil boom in nearby North Dakota drew many able-bodied workers, the labor shortage in Montana was particularly acute. Both the local Subway sandwich chain and Pizza Hut had to temporarily close because they lacked workers, and many local farms found themselves coming up severely short as well. “I know there are unemployed people in cities,” Steinbeisser says, “But they don’t come out here and work on the farms.”
Insufficient labor is a real issue for farms like Steinbeisser’s VS Inc. His farm grows corn, alfalfa, soybeans, and sugar beets, all of which are dependent on a labor-intensive irrigation process. Each year, half the farm is flooded through an ancient farming technique known as flood irrigation. Afterward, workers must move irrigation pipes quickly and efficiently so the water won’t stand and ruin the harvest. According to Steinbeisser, the work is “back-breaking.”
With fewer and fewer migrant workers making their way to Montana in recent years, Steinbeisser once struggled to find the hands he needed on his farm. Today, he is in a slightly better position only because one of his neighbors quit the farming business. The employees from that farm were suddenly in need of work. “It can take up to 10 years to learn to flood irrigate properly,” Steinbeisser says. One of his workers, who has over 20 years of irrigation experience, is what Steinbeisser calls a “self-starter.” Every morning, he goes out into the fields an hour before everyone else. “That,” says Steinbeisser, “is something you can’t teach.”
I know there are unemployed people in cities, but they don’t come out here and work on the farms.
Steinbeisser recognizes that he has been far luckier than many of his neighbors. During peak harvest season, some nearby farms have been forced to bring workers into the country though the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers. To procure H-2A visas, farm owners have to complete mountains of paperwork—a time-consuming and expensive process. And even if the paperwork is completed well in advance, H-2A workers frequently arrive two or three weeks late, throwing off the harvest and resulting in crop loss. “It so hard for those guys,” Steinbeisser says, adding that he knows of many farms that are making the difficult decision to cut back their active planting acres.
The labor situation has also caused Steinbeisser to recalibrate his long-term hopes for his farm. His family has grown potatoes for three generations, but without the labor support he needs, Steinbeisser is no longer able to grow this crop. He would like to resume this tradition in the future, but for now, the production of potatoes and other “table crops” like green beans, sweet corn, and squash is out of the question.
Given the current labor challenges, Steinbeisser says his overarching goal is “just to be here and be a thriving, money-making farm” in a few years’ time. He says he hopes Congress streamlines our immigration system to make that goal feel like more of a certainty—both for his farm and the broader community around him.