Leon Bulgin came to America from his native South Africa in 2002 to go to work for Hoffman Harvesting, a custom cutting business owned by Perry and Candice Hoffman near Bowdle, S.D., just 20 miles south of the North Dakota border. He was 18.
The young man quickly took to ranch life. The Hoffmans operate a cow-calf operation during the winter and follow the harvest in the summer and fall. He fell in love with ranch life, with the calm and the quiet and even the snow. And he fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, Jada.
In 2006, they were married. In 2009, he took over management of the ranching and harvesting operations when her father retired.
“Because this year is so late, and we’ve had so many delays, Perry is with us to help out,” Bulgin says. “He’s been having a great time, visiting with clients from years ago and getting reacquainted with towns and customers.”
Jada is along for the harvest, preparing meals for the crew and keeping the books. Their daughter celebrated her 10th birthday in Kansas in July, where a Hoffman Harvesting crew led by Bulgin was harvesting wheat for seedsman Vance Ehmke. The crew includes workers from South Africa, England and Scotland. Previous workers have come from Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
“In the early years, we went from Texas to Canada with the harvest,” Bulgin says. “As farms have gotten bigger, it takes longer at each location. So now we start in Oklahoma or Kansas and move to Colorado, the Dakotas and Montana.”
Harvest usually starts with canola, then moves to wheat, more canola in the north, lentils, chick peas and edible beans, and winds up with durum wheat in Montana, he says. In the fall, the crew harvests soybeans, corn and sunflowers, usually finishing around Thanksgiving.
“Then we head home, round up the cows and start over,” he says.
Hoffman maintains a steady stream of advertisements in area newspapers, Bulgin says, but he has found that the American workers he would like to hire are hard to find and harder yet to keep.
“It seems like the Americans just up and leave whenever they want,” he says. “I’ve had guys on the crew who attend more weddings in one summer than I have in a lifetime. It’s just easier for them to leave and then they sometimes don’t come back. The foreign workers pull up stakes to come halfway around the world and they have more at stake in the job. Not that some don’t get homesick and quit. That has happened.”
Hiring H-2A workers is expensive and filled with paperwork, he says. His wife handles that side of the operation. He says working conditions and living conditions are regularly inspected to ensure that they meet the requirements, he says.
“Then you have things like last November. I had paperwork in the works for people for calving season. Then there was the government shutdown that stopped everything. When calving started in March, I only had one worker that actually made it here,” he says. “That’s the risk of it.”
The reward, he says, is that he gets to know people from all over the world who join his crew for a season, or two or three or more.
One of them is Daniel LeRoux, who first joined Hoffman Harvesting five years ago for the calving season. Like Bulgin, he is a native of South Africa.
“He was a skinny little kid who didn’t know anything,” Bulgin says. “Now, he’s my main cattle guy. He started out driving a truck for the harvest, then drove the grain cart, and now he’s running one of the combines.”
LeRoux says he enjoys what he’s doing. “I have to worry that in the summer, I get fat, just sitting all day in the combine,” he says. “But I like it. I like all the little towns and the farmers who depend on us. My mother still thinks I should be going to college, but I’m happy with my job and my life.”
GOOD WHEAT: A combine driven by South African native Daniel LeRoux harvests wheat on the Vance Ehmke farm in Lane County. LeRoux joined Hoffman Harvesting five years ago and says he loves his work on the cattle ranch in winter and the harvest crew in summer.
His H-2A visa requires that he spend 3 months of every year back in South Africa. He says one thing that he’s gained in five seasons of working for Hoffman Harvesting is that he has made friends from all over the world.
“If I want to go see England or Holland for a vacation, I can just call one of the people I know, and I can stay with them and they will show me around,” he says.
Bulgin says one of the joys of the harvest season is how everyone is willing to help out.
“If we have a breakdown on the road, there will be someone who offers to help or knows someone to call. I think its unique to this lifestyle. It’s unique,” he says. “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I know that no matter what, it will be an adventure.”
He says Hoffman Harvesting, which now operates 5 combines, 2 grain carts and a fleet of 11 trucks is as big as he wants to be.
“We are like a sports team,” he says. “I take my time scouting for a new person, and we make sure we find the right guy to fit the team. If you get too big, you risk losing that team atmosphere.”