It's been a tough year to be a custom cutter.
"The weather has just hammered us," said Tracy Zoerian with U.S. Custom Harvesters, based in Hutchinson. "We've dealt with the heat and drought stress and thin stands and with too much rain and harvest delays. It's been a hard year."
And it's not over yet.
On Wednesday, Zoerian and her husband, Jim, who live in eastern Nebraska, were finishing up in Garden City and preparing to head for Limon, Colo., where harvest is still delayed by persistent rain.
"Meanwhile, we're hearing from our customers in Montana, where it's been hot and dry, that the wheat there is ready to cut," she said. "It's frustrating."
She said they were waiting to start the move to Colorado until their two daughters, who had to head back home to Nebraska for a competition, to get back to the crew.
"Fortunately, we don't have a customer in Colorado pushing us to get there," she said. "But we may end up with a customer in Montana who hires someone else because he can't afford to wait on us."
Zoerian said this year's harvest in Kansas went smoothly for them in spite of a couple of rain delays and they finished up with "near perfect" conditions in Garden City even as south-central and southeast Kansas were hit with flooding rains.
"Jim says that he thinks the custom harvesting industry will be killed by the weather," she said. "For years, we've complained at the rules and regulations, and they are bad, but it's the weather that just really hammers us."
Zoerian said custom cutters have not been seriously affected by a computer glitch that has delayed the arrival of harvest workers in other parts of agriculture, particularly in fruits and vegetables in California and Arizona.
"Most of our H-2A workers come from South Africa and they were here before the computers went down on June 9," she said. "We've heard from other places, though, that the losses due to not getting workers into the fields have been really bad."
The failure of an interface between the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department shut down the processing of all visas for visitors to the U.S., including temporary farm workers, from June 9 to June 24, backing up some 750,000 applications and flooding the border with waiting people.
Zoerian said her heart goes out to the farmers who are seeing losses of a major part of their harvest because they can't find the workers to bring in them in.
"There was a time when I was one of the people critical of immigrant labor," she said. "Not anymore. I've seen how hard it is to get workers. Our group tends to really like the South Africans. They are hard workers but they are also well-mannered, English-speaking and familiar with big equipment. That makes them ideal for us. But the Hispanic workers than our fruit and vegetable growers depend on are very hard working and willing to put in the hours that it takes to get farm work done."
She said she knows of many crews who have repeatedly tried to hire U.S. workers and have not been able to find people willing to do the work.
"American workers don't want to put in the hours or put up with how hard the work is," she said. "They want to work less and make more money."