Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2021


The global coronavirus pandemic disrupted migratory labor around the world, including foreign seasonal labor that travels to the United States to work in the mobile custom grain and forage harvesting industry that operates primarily in Great Plains states. The pandemic caused the United States to implement bans on travel from labor sending countries, and to delay the processing of the H-2A and J-1 visa nonimmigrant visas used by foreign custom grain and forage harvesting employees to enter the US. Many transnational workers were thus delayed or prevented from reporting for jobs that require training before harvest begins in April or May, creating a critical situation for mobile custom harvesting employers in moving their equipment to the fields and having enough workers to harvest the crops in the usual time frame. The J-1 visa process is administered by the US Department of State while the H-2A visa process is more complex and administered by the US Department of Labor, the US Department of Homeland Security, and the US Department of State, all part of the US public employment service (PES). Annual wheat harvest labor problems in the Great Plains played a significant role in the formation and development of the PES in the United States. Since a shortage of domestic United States labor began in the 1990s, mobile custom harvesting operations have relied on the PES to obtain workers from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and numerous European and other countries to meet their labor needs. This research uses information gathered from custom harvesting employers and a private labor agency in the United Kingdom to understand when and how these disruptions occurred, and how they affected the labor supply and 2020 harvest. Survey results reveal that more than half of the respondents’ 2020 workforce was expected to be from foreign countries, causing significant problems in finding enough domestic workers to replace foreign workers who were prevented from traveling to the US. Some employers have downsized their operations due to labor problems, and foreign labor may again be scarce in 2021.