BOWDOINHAM, Maine — Finding reliable, hard-working workers continues to be a major challenge for Maine farmers.
In November, the Maine unemployment rate was 2.8%, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information, down from 3.5% for November 2018. Low unemployment, combined with stricter federal H-2A visa federal regulations imposed by the Trump administration on hiring foreign workers, an aging resident population and other factors, contribute to the difficulty of finding seasonal farm workers, Nikkilee Cataldo of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, said at the Merrymeeting Food Council Farm Labor Roundtable, held in Bowdoinham.
A collaborative network of farms, fisheries, businesses, government, nonprofit organizations and individuals, the organization provides resources that support the production and sale of local produce and fish, in addition to promoting community wellness, Cataldo told the audience of about 100 area farmers, mostly from 14 towns surrounding the Merrymeeting Bay-area. The evening program featured presentations about labor pools, organizing labor and worker cooperatives, effective labor management tools and solicited comments and ideas from the audience.
“Even in the heyday of it being super-cool to work on a farm in the summer, it was really hard to find people who would work efficiently and all-day long,” Cataldo said. “We all know that big flood of workers has receded. Our farmers and many other business owners across the state are struggling to find anyone willing to do it.”
Basic farm laborer jobs, generally, don’t offer competitive wages compared to other sectors of the employment market, Cataldo said. In rural Maine communities, there is very limited rental housing available, and little-to-no public transportation available. Farm apprenticeship programs are being eliminated by community colleges due to policy issues and increased oversight by the Department of Labor in how it defines acceptable job duties.
“In light of all of this, the Food Council recognized that we needed to focus some energy on this issue,” Cataldo said. “To address this challenge, we organize events where presenters share existing and potential innovative solutions. It’s a grassroots collaborative way to focus on an issue specific to our community and to work together to find solutions.”
Fairwinds Farm, with locations in Topsham and Bowdoinham, owned by Pete and Cathy Karonis, operate five greenhouses, and farms 5 acres, in Topsham and in Bowdoinham, 16 acres are devoted to strawberries, about 45 acres produce mixed vegetables and following the strawberry season, the farm opens raspberry and blueberry pick-your-own fields. During the summer season, Fairwinds Farm hires high school students, along with other local residents, to fill seasonal labor needs.
“We have about 40 to 45 (seasonal) workers at one time,” Cathy Karonis said. “Over the years, we’ve had to expand the number of our employees. We get a few adults who pick to make some extra money, but many are teenagers.”
The farm recruits seasonal berry pickers on its website and through area high schools, farmers markets, local stores and word-of-mouth, Karonis said. Pickers are paid piece work, but, “if they’re motivated, they make well-above minimum wage.”
“Speed is not as important as quality,” she said. “It’s a good way to try-out workers. Many come back for years. We are fortunate to have some large families who work with us, but it’s harder to find kids to come back every year.”
Many of the teen pickers are too young to drive, Karonis said. As a result, the farm provides transportation to and from work. Teen workers are assigned to specific crews, each supervised by crew leaders and crew assistants, to help focus teams to meet daily production goals.
Ian Jerolmack, owner of Stonecipher Farm, a 10-acre organic vegetable and free-range egg farm, in Bowdoinham, shared his experiences working with the H-2A visa workers. Despite the governmental red tape, he “was very pleased with going that route.”
“I’ve only used it for one year,” Jerolmack said. “The arduousness of doing it feels especially and acutely ridiculous in this modern economy because there are people who need these jobs, but that burden is on you to prove that there are people who need and want these jobs. I feel that the biggest roadblock and reason why a lot of small farms don’t think they can do it is because of the governmental bureaucratic paperwork.”
Jerolmack said it’s actually not as hard as many believe. “I found that just moving through it, follow through, and not breaking the law, it’s not very hard.”
“Fundamentally, you have workers there for three months of the year,” Jerolmack said. “You can’t go overlapping or anything like that, but that may change. Immigrant workers are better than any of those here. Americans are just so disconnected from this kind of work.”
The downside — it is expensive. Regulations require that employers provide housing and transportation for workers. Jerolmack paid H-2A workers $13.25 per hour, and that wage is expected to increase by more than a dollar next year.
Farmers in Knox County have a potential labor resource connected to the Buldoc Correctional Facility, located at Warren. Randy Thomas, the Farm Manager for the facility, which is located at the historic Maine State Prison Farm, told the audience that the minimum security facility operates a work release program for inmates serving remaining sentences of two years or less.
The 100-acre farm program has become a major supplier of produce for Department of Correction facilities. Thomas said about 90 acres are under cultivation — 40 acres of dried beans and potatoes and 50 acres for hay and cattle grazing. It also features a 90-foot greenhouse and currently has about a dozen beef cattle which support its Culinary Arts Program.
“We have about 100 inmates on work release,” Thomas said. “They work in the community. Their wages go into savings, to pay room and board, and to pay fines and restitution. It’s a good opportunity if you’re looking for someone to do farm work who has some training.”
Maine’s Vocational Rehabilitation program and the non-profit AgrAbility program are both sources for potential farm workers. Each program provides services and resources to support workers with disabilities.