Heading south for harvest

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


The world of professional harvesting is a strange one in many respects. It turns the traditional view of agriculture as a sedentary enterprise of settled homesteads with a firm sense of place completely on its head. Burdett area farmer Shawn Thacker, owner and manager of Thacker Harvesting Ltd., has been following the seasonal wheat, barley and canola harvest from New Mexico all the way north to southern Alberta for the past 24 years. He originally got into the business as a way to supplement his farm income, but it has since become his full time occupation. “When I started there was approximately 100 crews, maybe a little more, working out of Canada that would go to the U.S. in the spring months and harvest their way back,” remembers Thacker. “Now I would say we are maybe a dozen crews. It’s a reflection of the fact the equipment has gotten larger and we’re more efficient. Custom harvesters are probably covering the same if not more acres than what we had done back when I first started.” As a business it can be quite lucrative, explains Thacker, but its not without its risks and challenges. “It can be sporadic,” states Thacker. “We do hit weather issues where the crop’s not quite there. It’s not a game for the faint of heart. We’ve got a lot of risk out there. We’ve got a lot of expensive equipment and a lot of people we have to rely on to get us down there. The list goes on and on.” What has gotten easier over the years, says Thacker, is finding customers. “Initially when we first started we did a lot of groundwork looking for farmers to work for. Now it’s a little bit more word of mouth. We have a lot of friends in the professional harvesting industry, and if we can’t make a job we try to get our friends’ crews to cover the work. We will swap work. That happens quite often; and we’ll return the favour. We try to make each other survive at the end of the day.” Getting across the border every spring can be a pain in and of itself, says Thacker. “It’s complex how they do it. We have to get our new work visas every year for the United States. We are just in the application process now (in February) of applying to the Department of Labor in the States to get our work visas started. We are kind of riding on a shoestring here because we don’t know if we are really in business until we actually get our final approval in the mail at the end of April.” In an ideal year Thacker and his 13 man crew start in New Mexico harvesting wheat in May. They slowly move north following the wheat and barley harvest through Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Montana. Thacker then picks up four or five more guys in southern Montana and they work there way north to finish their year harvesting canola, wheat and barley in southern Alberta in October. Thacker has to plan out his logistics carefully every step of the way. “We load our combines on drop-deck trailers,” explains Thacker. “We have specially built trailers to haul or headers. We’ll have two headers for each combine. We have service trucks that have got to go with us to pull those. We have to take our pick-up trucks because we bring our housing with us as well. They will be hauling campers, but we also have larger trailers that we use a semi for as well. For us we have the capacity to haul half our equipment in one trip and then we always have to come back for the other half.” After arriving on site Thacker’s crew sets up camp in a central location, (often at a private campground made up for them by their loyal local customers), and get to work. “We run five combines in the southern States and eight in Montana and Alberta. We start hauling equipment down in the spring either to Kansas or New Mexico depending on what the crop is like. They have had a series of droughts further south the past few years so it’s pretty speculative at this point as to where we’ll start.” Thacker is always looking for new guys to fill out his crew every year. He begins assembling his next team a few weeks after his final harvest. “We do have a number of crew members that will come back year to year,” says Thacker, “but it’s an ever-changing landscape with employees. Usually most guys are along for two to three years, but after awhile they have had their fill of harvest, they have seen the country and they are moving on to new things. It usually takes six months to assemble a crew and make sure everyone has got their visa applications and other paperwork in.” Thacker has noticed a pattern with those who come to him to apply for a season. “This job is not for everyone because we are gone for a long time every year. It’s a job suited for the young man who wants his adventures and wants to see some country. When we hire we want to make sure they are in for the whole season. And we want to make sure they have some experience operating some kind of farm equipment, and see a background like that of some sort. We have hired kids from the city before and they have turned out excellent, but what we have found is the ones who really want to stick it out are ones who have been on a farm,” says Thacker. As for himself, Thacker says there is no job he’d rather be doing. “I am not thinking retirement yet,” states Thacker with a chuckle. “I’m still fairly young. I am 47 years-old, and my son Dallas is just coming into play now. It’s his last year of high school, but he grew up on harvesters and he’s already part owner in a combine with one of our employees. He will probably continue on in the business after he is done college. Once he gets his education he can decide which route he wants to go.”