September 23, 2018
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How Maine farms find their seasonal hands

By Kathleen Pierce, BDN Staff
Updated:

Help wanted. Must like vegetables. Perks: Fresh air and all the produce you can stomach.

This time of year, as farmers sharpen their spades, plant seedlings and gear up for the growing season, they scramble to find enough people to make the farm flourish.

From The County to Kittery, farms large and small are putting out the signal that the hiring season has begun. Long before the first green shoots burst from the earth farmers like Lisa Turner at Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport need a team in place.

“It’s different year to year. It’s like a ski resort,” Turner said of the hiring pool for seasonal agricultural work. This year Turner will hire eight full-timers. By late-February she had four in place. Now in the farm’s 20th year, she gets more applicants from other states — Connecticut, Virginia, Tennessee.

Sometimes demand is high, and farm hands secure their spot early. “I have had college kids emailing me in November to work here in June,” she said. “This year’s been slow,” she said. “I have not found there is a normal.”

In Maine, hiring criteria differ depending on the farm and its scale. Diversified farms require different skill sets than large commodity operations.

The suite of skills needed for a small, organic farm doesn’t necessarily apply at a commercial apple orchard or potato or blueberry operation, where the workforce is brought in to accomplish a singular task, such as getting in the harvest.

Most jobs on vegetables farms run from April to after Thanksgiving. Farmers such as Ben Whateley, co-owner of Whately Farm in Topsham, say it’s tough to find qualified candidates willing to work for only eight months a year.

“It’s not a bridge job,” said Whately, who stopped looking for farm hands on sites such as Craigstlist and shifted to the more-targeted MOFGA.net. Entering the organic farm’s fifth season, Whately has become more strategic, looking for “quality over quantity.”

Because the farmer will only hire one person this year, the fit is crucial.

“We have high expectations of that one person. We are investing all of our time and training to that one person and are incentivizing that person,” Whatley said.

“It’s different from a large farm just hiring a big crew,” he continued. “We become friends with the people that come work here. We have lunch together in the farmhouse, and they represent us at farmers markets.”

Dave Colson, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association agricultural services director, said applicant interest for its farm apprenticeship program remains steady. The association connects agri-aspirants with positions providing a clear route to stable farm work. This year 51 farms actively seek apprentices.

“Farms hire people through the apprenticeship program because they are interested in people who are learning,” Colson said.

On the other hand, in rural parts of the state, on blueberry and potato farms, hires need to be reliable and stalwart for shorter stints.

“Larger, single crop farms have specific times of year when they are looking for labor,” Colson said. “It’s big requirements for a short time.”

Andy Ricker, manager and ninth generation orchardist at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, looks to hire his first crop of employees in early spring.

“We hire high school kids at April break for brush cleanup around the farm,” he said. The next wave is equipment operators, and “the fall is when we gear up for harvest.”

He doesn’t receive applicants seeking a career in farming, but those “looking for a job first and worrying about what it is second.”

The 400-acre orchard relies on a mix of locals and immigrants for temporary work. To hire workers, through The Department of Homeland Security’s H-2A program, Ricker has to put in his request in March. After his trees bloom, “we have to adjust that number,” so staffing up is tricky.

Although it’s much easier to hire people from the United States, the trend in paid laborers from outside the U.S. is growing in Maine. “Larger farms need major labor. Increasingly they are relying on guest workers from Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” Colson said. On the blueberry fields, such hires have increased in the last five years, the MOFGA rep said.

“Farmers have a hard time finding people that are willing to work the hours and the type of work that’s required on farms,” Colson said. “These workers are extremely hard workers, very reliable.”

Ricker, who said 20 percent of his seasonal crew is typically non-U.S. residents, agrees.

“Harvest is hard work. We find enough local help to do everything but harvest,” Ricker said. “There is not enough qualified local help. The people that are able to do that work are already doing it full time.”

Economic factors

“In 2009 and 2010 it was a lot easier to find better, local help,” Ricker said. “As the economy has gotten better, it’s harder to find them.”

Although the average pay for a farm hand in Maine starts at $9 to $10 per hour, young, college-educated people in their 20s are still coming here to dig in the dirt.

Many of MOFGA’s apprentices are not deterred by the pay scale. “There are other reasons they are looking at farm work,” Colson said. “They are inspired by the work they are doing and are contributing to a greater good.”

And yet, while young people continue to migrate to Maine to farm, their counterparts in rural pockets of the state are doing the reverse. “The grass is always greener,” Colson said. “They grow up around farming and understand its difficulties.”

Clearly, the job is not glamorous. Tasks at Laughing Stock Farm include weeding, packaging, washing and harvesting. It’s not always a path to a life of farming. “You can’t teach anyone everything in one summer,” Turner said. “It’s not possible.”

Not all employees at her 15-acre farm have continued in agriculture. Setting out on other paths (one is now a lawyer), besides fresh food and a good tan, they gained “a diverse view of what the world is about.”

Even those who start out with stars and scallions in their eyes may not make it until fall. “Some people try it and hate it,” said Turner, who will hire as late as May, if she needs to.

Though hiring trends are “as varied as people are,” the demographics have skewed younger of late.

“There are more people interested in farming than there were when we started 20 years ago,” Turner said. “It seems to be the cool thing. I’m surprised by the amount of interest.”


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