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Montana Ag Network: Harvest crews experiencing labor shortage

Posted at 9:09 AM, May 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-28 11:09:06-04

The spring planting of crops is almost complete for farmers in Montana but a labor shortage created by COVID-19 may impact this year’s harvest.

In a few weeks, as the grain harvest begins in Texas and works its way north, farmers and custom harvest crews will experience a shortage of experienced guest workers -- many of whom travel to the U.S. from Australia and South Africa as they follow the harvest around the world.

Current restrictions on international travel are playing a key factor and Montana Grain Growers Association President Vince Mattson said it’s an issue he is watching closely.

“There's been news some crews might be showing up in the June time frame,” Mattson said. “That's going to be a month already into harvest down in Texas. Many of those crews will be already rocking and rolling.”

Some producers in Montana also depend on experienced guest workers to help plant crops in the spring.

“There are several people in Montana whose spring planting was hard because their people couldn’t show up to help plant,” Mattson explained. “They were able to kind of patch and stitch some things together.”

“Some of them made it work because school was not in session and their kids were able to come help drive tractor and drive a truck and a few other things. So, there were some fill-in help there.”

On a more positive note, while COVID-19 has impacted the meat supply chain, the pandemic has had little impact on the movement of grain.

“Wheat is still moving,” said Mattson. “The trains are still going. Elevators are still rolling. Our suppliers, chemical people, fertilizer is still happening. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of product. Hats off to the whole system there. It's largely been successful.”

Mattson said he is concerned about how the pandemic may impact wheat and barley exports down the road. That is because agriculture trade missions from the U.S. and visiting grain buyers from abroad are unable to travel to learn more about U.S. wheat and barley.

But the agriculture leader is confidant the Montana Grain Growers and Montana Wheat and Barley Committee will continue to advocate for producers and promote Montana’s high-quality wheat and barley to overseas markets, no matter the situation.