Grateful For A Life On The Road

For three South African custom harvesters, life on the road provides invaluable experiences that these young farmers wouldn't otherwise get.

A lot of jobs require some travel – but that typically doesn't mean being sent across the world for seven months at a time.

That's the life Kenan van Onselen, Kyle Bradford and Hendrik Potgieter have lived the past few years. They head to North America from their home of South Africa to work the harvest for Braathen Harvesting, a nearly 50-year-old custom harvesting operation that deals mostly in small grains, soybeans, corn, and sunflowers.

This year's season was the third Onselen has spent in North America, while Bradford — who hails from the same city as Onselen (Port Elizabeth) – and Potgieter (whose hometown is in the Bergville area) each now have two under their belts. While some of the magic and big-eyed wonderment that comes along with working in such a new and different environment has worn off, all three young men say when they first arrived, the culture shock was real.

"In the beginning, it's eye-opening... the traveling is nice in the first year, you see new things, you see the infrastructure of America, and how it's built and how it's different from South Africa, so it's an eye-opener then, but in years to come it's just like going home, you get used to it," says Onselen, 24.

"Traveling, not even just for work, sometimes we get time off, and we get to pick up and go somewhere. We loved seeing Mount Rushmore."

And it wasn't just their physical surroundings that offered a stark change; the way business is run, and measurements are calculated proved to be tricky things to get used to. Not to mention, homesickness does take its toll.

"All the technology does make the work easier, to get to work with this stuff is kind of cool."

"I'd say, and I think the guys would agree, it's working on your systems... we've all got our own ways of doing things, but you always have to fall in line and do it the way you do it (in North America), like the metrics, I think that's a challenge," says Potgieter, 32.

"I think another challenge we would have is lack of communication, with the language barrier, you know? Accents!" says Onselen with a laugh. "But I think we can all agree besides the work, being away from home is quite rough, especially for long periods of time, so that makes it a bit challenging."

Onselen, Bradford, and Potgieter all come from a strong farming background, either through family farms or studying Agriculture at university. Word of mouth is what led each of them to research more about working harvests in North America. Not only would the men gather experience in a new environment with different machinery and sometimes different crops, but it would be a better opportunity to earn a living than staying home.

After their first years following Braathen's harvesting route from Texas along the Red River through to the Kansas/Oklahoma border and into northeast Colorado before going north to South Dakota and North Dakota. While using much more technologically advanced machinery than they have access to back home, including MacDon headers for small grains and soybeans, they knew they'd like to come back again.

Given their similar life paths, goals, and experiences, the men have built a tight bond as they've worked together, and with their other crew members these last few months, a major workplace pro that isn't necessarily a given.

"We're a small crew, so we're quite tight, we all get along, so it's not a big corporation, it's a very personal, one-on-one type of situation," explains Onselen.

"And then on top of that, it's just nice to be able to work with this equipment; we've got it back home but just not on the same scale, you know? So just to work with all this fancy equipment that makes life so much easier in the field is quite nice."

"All the technology does make the work easier, to get to work with this stuff is kind of cool," adds Potgieter.

"And in this case, working with a nice, fancy MacDon!" Bradford, 25, chimes in.

South Africa, while a stunning country and a very popular vacation spot because of the natural beauty and safari tours, has a notably high crime rate. Murder, assaults, break-ins, and other types of violent crimes are prevalent, and increased security measures – such as a rise in gated communities and, for those who can afford it, the use of private security guards – are now common in many parts of the country.

So, while there aren't a lot of things Onselen misses about North America when he heads back home, he does love the level of safety he feels while working there.

"I'm pretty sure everybody can say there's no place like home, but I could actually say one thing, I miss the safety side. Just your personal safety, like you can leave your key in the pick-up, you don't have to lock your camper... that I miss most," says Onselen.

All three men plan on returning to North America for future harvesting seasons; they recognize there are a lot of people who would love the same opportunity, but they aren't ready to give it up quite yet.

"I would say yes... I'm not sure about the near future. I think me, personally, I need a bit of a break, but I would definitely say yes. It's such an amazing opportunity to come here and work and earn the money we earn and do what we do. It's certainly worth coming back," says Onselen.

"The opportunity is quite a big thing to get, there's a lot of people back home who don't get the opportunity we get, and we love to be able to do what we do, so we're all lucky in that aspect," says Bradford.

"I would definitely agree," says Potgieter. "You're never too old to learn, and every time we come back, we gain more experience and learn new things, even if you've done it before."