July 20, 2019
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From snowplowing to the call center, how Maine farmers survive the winter chill

For Maine livestock farmers, the work continues year-round, no matter the weather. And for those with all-season greenhouses, it can as well. But while some farmers pour over seed catalogues in winter, planning for next season, others slip off the dirt-caked boots and enter the workforce when the ground freezes.

“Winter is always a hard time for people coming off of farm season. It can be stressful,” said farmer Bethany Allen, who runs Harvest Tide Organics in Bowdoinham.

To make ends meet, she started work as a sales support specialist for 32 hours a week at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in November. “As a seasonal worker, it’s a challenge … it’s shifting your whole life.”

Picking up offseason work helps fill in the gaps for agriculturalists such as Allen and Andrea Bachynsky of Honeysuckle Way Flowers in Whitefield.

Both women are working at Johnny’s this year, joining a handful of farmers hired in the Fairfield office of the Winslow-based seed producer. For Allen, who just completed a successful first year selling produce with her partner Eric Ferguson, working off-farm has its pros and cons. Though she drives 50 minutes each day for the needed paycheck, the social aspect is a plus.

“There are 25 people I get to interact with,” she said. “Working on a farm, your cohort co-worker pool is very small. There is value in working with other people.”

After working 100-hour weeks last summer, hitting the pause button to join a team is refreshing. Another pro: the entire business doesn’t rest on her shoulders.

“When I am farming, we are the boss. Here, I am filling a role. It’s seasonal, so it’s nice to go and do a job well. It feels like a little bit of a break,” Allen said, admitting though that “it’s hard to leave the farm,” even in winter when there is planning to be done.

For flower farmer Bachynsky, the season of colorful zinnias and dahlias is preciously short.

In coming years she wants to expand beyond June through September with hardier plants. Now in her fourth year as a Maine farmer, this is her first offseason working as a call center specialist at Johnny’s.

Lower on the ladder, her schedule is less predictable than Allen’s. She worked 16 hours one week, when she would have liked more.

“It’s a scramble to make money, but I’m doing what I love doing. It’s super rewarding for me and exiting to see what I can build and make work,” Bachynsky, 29, said.

On the plus side, what she gleans on the job can be applied on the quarter-acre plot she rents.

“I am learning a lot through other people’s questions, and my co-workers are like-minded people,” Bachynsky said. “I’ve learned about different varieties of flowers and am gaining in-depth knowledge about vegetables, different varieties and hardiness.”

For these toilers of the soil, working in an office setting is a transition.

“I am not used to being inside at a desk,” said Bachynsky, who sits in a cube wearing a headset fielding inquiries on how to grow plants from customers across the globe.

In past winters she has worked as a snowboard instructor at Sugarloaf. But income on the slopes was even less predictable than Johnny’s.

“It’s a hard balance, not having any money coming in around Christmas,” she said.

Even established agriculturalists have to wear different hats this time of year.

After staying open through last winter, the owner of Highland Avenue Greenhouse, Farm Market and Cafe in Scarborough, has decided to shutter on Christmas Eve and reopen two weeks before Easter.

“It was a bad winter and cost us a lot of money,” said Joe Viscone, who equated last winter’s low return on investment to “picking up nickels in front of a steamroller.”

Three years ago the farmer, who has 10 greenhouses (one actively producing greens in the cold months), started a winter CSA offering greens, eggs and baked goods. More than extra income, it “keeps an employee busy without having to lay them off,” he said.

Viscone also has a snowplowing, salt and sanding business. Last year’s record accumulation kept him busy. So far, no customers this year.

“It’s one of those things. You really want snow, but that’s stressful too when the calls come in,” Viscone said.



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