For the past two winters, a sod farm operation in Kansas has started doing something pretty unusual during its off months from production. Instead of staying put on their farm, upper management of Sod Shop Companies has flown down to Mexico to visit their H-2A employees and families while they returned home for a break.
Co-Owner of Sod Shop Companies, Wade Wilbur said this has been such a rewarding opportunity for them to see the lives their temporary agricultural employees are building for themselves and their families back home. Sod Shop, founded by Wade’s father, Tony Wilbur, and uncle, Ted Wilbur, has expanded from growing just row crops in the 1990s into two full-scale sod farming operations today. Ted manages the original Wichita, KS sod farm and Wade, who came on board in 2004 is the President of the Lawrence, KS location they purchased in 2012. The Lawrence Sod Shop is the division of the business that utilizes H-2A labor.
“This is the fourth year of us using H-2A labor, which is basically a visa to bring seasonal workers in from other countries for 9-10 months and then they go home in the off-season, or winter months,” Wade said. He explained this works well with their sod business because they slow down tremendously during the winter. Sod Shop has hired H-2A employees from Mexico and South Africa in the past, but over the past two years, they’ve solely used workers from Mexico due to travel complications during the COVID.
With their landscaping and sod business, Wade said they’ve had Hispanic employees on staff since the early 1990s. “We’ve always had invitations to go down and visit the areas of which they were from but never really had the right opportunity. So, last winter we went down with an employee from our staff who grew up in Mexico and was bilingual,” he shared. “Not only did we travel around to visit existing employees, we also interviewed potential new employees and searched for more workers with specific skills that we needed.”
In 2020, between Wade and Sod Shop Vice President of Operations, Mike Howard, they traveled over 6,500 KM (4,000+ miles) for 17 days across 10 states in Mexico to visit six different H-2A families.
The two took turns traveling to Mexico so they weren’t away from their business in Kansas at the same time. They flew from Kansas to Denver to Mexico. They arrived in Mexico and set out in a rental car. Traveling between 9-13 hours per day between six different families, both Wade and Mike said although the trip was long, it was well worth every mile.
The reason behind their initial visits was due to Sod Shop needing more truck drivers. Wade explained that currently, a Mexican CDL works in the United States. This is a huge advantage for us when we need drivers because we can bring people up and the day they arrive their license is valid. That’s a whole process we don’t have to go through.”
Wade said when they arrived at each of their H-2A employees’ homes, they were greeted and welcomed with a family-style meal that was like a feast. “It was like we had a Thanksgiving dinner every single day,” he laughed. Some families would put on parties to welcome them. One even hired a mariachi band to play for them while they ate dinner with their family.
Wade’s favorite part of visiting their families is getting the opportunity to experience their culture and food inside their homes. He admired that every home they visited had a TV but he never saw the TV get turned on the entire time they were there. “When the meal was over, we would sit around the table for sometimes two hours just having conversations with each other. I think about in the US when we get together for Thanksgiving or whatever we eat the meal and then everyone plops in front of a TV to watch football. That wasn’t the case there. Everyone really enjoys each other’s company,” Wade reflected.
This winter, Mike returned again to Mexico to visit their H-2A employees with an employee that helped as an interpreter and as a guide. He said his favorite part of the visits aside from meeting everyone was the fresh guacamole. “Both years, the mother or the matriarch of the family would pluck fresh onions, fresh avocados and fresh cilantro and literally make it right there in front of us, fresh out of the ground and off of the tree.” He said that he also admires how everyone is so appreciative there giving hugs and kisses.
Wade noted that every employee there would tell him an opportunity to come work in the United States was like winning the lottery for them. After they would finish a meal, the families would tell him there was a group of people outside that wanted to speak to him. “I would go outside and 20-30 people from the community would be gathered and asking for an opportunity to come and work in the U.S. too. It’s interesting to hear that in this day and age in our country,” Wade said. “We’re having a hard time finding people who want to do manual labor but down there people were lining up wanting us to take their names and begging for the opportunity to come.”
Wade said their trips have significantly strengthened their H-2A program and relationships with their employees while it also allowed him to find more employees for the future. Sod Shop only has 12 H-2A spaces available and Wade said he could have easily come home with several hundred people that were eager to work.
“Although I would preface, there are a lot of restrictions, guidelines and other things we have to do such as provide housing, transportation and meet a lot of government guidelines to be able to have this kind of workforce. But it also gives us a dedicated and committed workforce when they get here,” Wade said. “They are a workforce that comes up for nine months specifically focused on working and trying to get as much work done while work as many hours as they can.” He said, unlike their average worker, these H-2A employees don’t need days off; they come up and work as hard as they can and then they go home to enjoy their time with their families.”
Building a Better Life
Wade explained when it comes to visiting their employees, it gave him insight into what their culture is like which then led them to respond differently to him as a business owner when they returned to Kansas.
“There was a lot of pride. It’s pretty uncommon for an American business owner to travel down to meet their employees in their own country. So the people had a lot of pride in showing off their homes and a lot of them are constructing new homes with their earnings that they’re making here,” Wade said.
“You can see when you’re down there how their money is being used and makes their families, and extended families and extended-extended families just have a better life,” Mike said. “I think they said they’ll work 10-12 hours a day in Mexico and make around $6-12 a day, and here they’ll work 10-12 hours and make $100 in a day. So they kind of say 3 years is wages in Mexico is worth nine months of wages in the United States.”
Mike recalled walking into one home where he was greeted by the employee’s mother crying. He turned to the interpreter to find out what was wrong. The mother told him she’d never seen an American boss come to Mexico to see their workers and couldn’t believe he was in her kitchen.
He told the mother that’s why he was there, to thank her for allowing her son to come work for them. Mike said almost every family had a reaction like hers, of pure shock that an American businessman came to visit H-2A employees and their families. Mike said while they’re really appreciative for what Sod Shop does for their lives, on the other hand, they’re really appreciative for the work the H-2A employees do because they wouldn’t be able to do what they do without them.
Wade said it was rewarding and put a lot of meaning into why they run an H-2A program when they were able to see what their paychecks are being spent on to support the families in Mexico. Wade said it was very humbling to see homes in various construction phases and hear how proud they were to be able to afford a new home with what they made while working in America. Mike said it was pretty surreal traveling for two weeks to meet their employees’ children, parents, friends and even potential employees for other sod farms or farmers in the U.S. that he personally met and vetted their experience.
“It makes you realize they’re taking nine months away from their families and they’re so appreciative because of what they’re able to go back and do, like buying a vehicle for their family who’s never had a vehicle,” Mike said. “Some of their parents are in their 60s and they’ve never owned a car. One of them built a bathroom in his house because he’d never had one before. Four of the guys have actually started building their own homes now and are slowly working towards that.”
He encourages any business owner utilizing H-2A or visa employees to take the opportunity to visit their home countries and meet their families. Mike agrees with Wade that it’s not just life-changing for them, but it also puts into perspective how it impacts a specific employee’s family and life back home. “It allows them to see how it makes the life that they know 20-fold better. You can go into these communities and almost see the American dollar at work,” Mike said. He said driving through a town, they’d suddenly see a house that their employee had put their hard-earned money into fixing up by painting it or adding doors and windows where there were none before. He said it’s amazing to see what it changes for their families and how it helps them.
For more information about Sod Shop, click here.
This article was written by Cecilia Brown.