Dane Finds His Dream in Kansas Fields

June 26, 2015 05:38 AM
Dane Finds His Dream in Kansas Fields

When Anders Buus Thomsen looks out the window of his combine, he sees wide-open possibilities.

Acres of ripe wheat stretch across the horizon. He watches as his crew of five workers kicks up dust across the field, working tirelessly into the evening in an effort to harvest the farmer's crop, The Hutchinson News reported.

There aren't these opportunities in his native Denmark. But amid the path of wheat that stretches across the nation's middle, Buus Thomsen is living the American dream.

"There is possibility here - that if you work hard, it is possible," the 31-year-old said. "Here, there is the wide-open space to start a business."

Like an olden-day cattle drover, modern-day nomads are inching north as wheat turns from green to golden. They move from one rural farm community to the next, bringing with them an entourage of machinery and manpower. Many live in trailers at the local RV park.

Those camps are somewhat of a melting pot. These days, it is difficult to find Americans who will do the job, which spans from April to November. Custom harvesters often hire foreign workers who don't mind the long hours, working weekends and itinerant living.

That's how Buus Thomsen found his way to Kansas. Nowadays, Anders and his wife, Amanda, are operating BT Harvesting, basing it out of Kiowa, Kansas.

He first answered the harvest call in 2006, taking a job with a custom crew based in the Barber County town of Kiowa.

After the trip, he returned to Denmark, where his parents have an average-size farm in the country - 160 acres. They also raise minks for the fur market.

Kansas is four times bigger than Denmark, he said, adding it's also overpopulated. The country also has strict regulations and taxes, making it difficult and not profitable for families to get into agriculture.

Buus Thomsen had bought a small acreage in Denmark not long after returning to the country. He soon realized, however, he was homesick for the Midwestern United States. He felt the call of Kansas' wheat crop.

He said he enjoyed the work and the camaraderie of harvest. Moreover, America seemed more advantageous.

"I missed it," he said. "I wanted to come back because I enjoyed it."

He sold his farm. In 2009, he came back to Kansas through The Ohio Program. The Ohio State University J-1 visa internship training program takes skilled trainees like Buus Thomsen, who want to receive advanced training in agriculture, horticulture and similar fields, and pairs them up with U.S. mentors.

In 2010, with $130,000 from his private savings - enough to show he was serious - he obtained an investor's visa. He started a limited liability corporation and began harvesting alongside the Kiowa-area operator.

"I fell in feet first," he said, adding he didn't plan for it to all happen so quickly. "We've been pretty fortunate that we've done well enough that we have been able to grow."

Amanda was teaching in Kiowa when she met her future husband at a barbecue in April 2012.

She was smitten.

"He's sweet," she said.

She also quickly realized he was passionate about the harvest.

She grew up on a farm in central Illinois but admits she didn't know much about the lifestyle of a custom cutter. She grew up in a place where everyone owned their own combine.

"Everyone in central Illinois did," she said. "It was a concept that was foreign to me."

But in the Wheat Belt, he explained to her, custom harvesters perform a service for those who don't want the expense of owning a combine - especially if it would only be used once a year.

It didn't take her long to fall in love with harvest, too. She began coming on the trip their first summer, then, a few years ago, quit her school teaching job to do books, payroll and paperwork for BT Harvesting, along with cooking the meals for the crew.

The couple married in December.

"It's the people," she said of why she loves it, adding they have friends as far north as Canada. "You get to meet some of the best people. That's what makes it worth it."

Now Buus Thomsen is giving others a chance who want to work and hone their agriculture skills in America.

"They want to be able to drive and use big machinery," Amanda said, adding machinery in other countries is smaller. "They can go home and say, 'This is what I did; this is what I operated.'"

Typically, the couple can find one American for the crew, said Amanda. This year, however, they couldn't find anyone.

The government requires them to advertise the position before using the H2-A visa program. But the Americans who applied this year either had DUIs on their record and couldn't pass CDL and other driving tests or they didn't like the hours.

So the couple chose five Europeans - two from Denmark, two from Ireland and one from Spain.

Marty, from Spain, began learning English in September so he could take the job - even working on a dairy farm for a few months so he could improve his speech. Jamie, from Ireland, always wanted to take part in the harvest ritual. He left his engineering job and headed across the ocean, Amanda said.

Matt Lund also hails from Denmark. On this stop, he drives the grain cart, maneuvering back and forth between the combines and semis.

He's been to the United States a few times, including as a foreign exchange student. He wants to get his pilot's license and work as a crop duster.

He wanted to experience harvest first.

"It's been really good," Lund said. "I like working in the industry. I like driving big machines."

Christian Larsen, from Denmark, left his girlfriend behind for the seven-month job. He had never been to the United States.

If he's homesick, he doesn't show it. As he drove the combine, he talked about the anticipation of getting started and the excitement of seeing different parts of the country.

"Just being on the harvest itself, that's what I find exciting," Larsen said.

This year, the crew started beside the Red River of Oklahoma. Now they are cutting along the border near Kiowa, the Barber County town that Amanda and Anders call home.

The season is just beginning. They have a lot of acres to go. There are stops in Scott City, Colorado, the Dakotas and maybe even Canada. If the weather cooperates, they could cut up to 25,000 acres this year.

But that's the joy of the custom harvest business, Anders Buus Thomsen said.

Sure, he said, there are tough days. Earlier on this day, he got his combine stuck. A sensor broke on another.

In past years, he has had crew members leave in the middle of harvest - leaving him and Amanda to search for help.

But the things that drew him to Kansas are what make his career choice worth it. It's about meeting good friends. It's about helping bring in a farmer's paycheck. And this stand of wheat was yielding fair, he said.

That's what keeps any custom cutter going.

"The best feeling is when the sun is out, the ground holds up and the wheat is decent," he said. "And it's a good feeling when you've done a good job. I can't describe that feeling."

Then he added, "It's an addiction. You get a buzz when everything is going well."--Amy Bickel, The Hutchinson News

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