Faced with a persistent agricultural labor shortage, Midcoast organizations are collaborating

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A photo inside a greenhouse at the Growing to Give farm in Brunswick. Contributed.

A handful of Midcoast organizations are teaming up to bolster the local agricultural workforce — which has struggled with labor shortages for at least a decade.

Through a new agricultural skills training pilot program launched by the Merrymeeting Food Council, approximately 10 new farmers will learn the ins and outs of farming while working at the Growing to Give Farm in Brunswick.

The program will run from late winter until May 2022 and, according to council coordinator Harriet Van Vleck, the aim is to give participants access and opportunity to develop farming and communication skills. that will meet the needs of local agricultural jobs.

The Merrymeeting Food Council is a local collaborative network that works to promote and advance local food systems in 14 Midcoast cities. Other organizations supporting the initiative include Goodwill Workforce Solutions, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, Tedford Housing and UMaine Cooperative Extension.

“Most other agricultural training programs are geared towards people who want to become farmers themselves and own their own business, and are therefore a bit further along in the process,” Vleck said. “We hope – by providing lots of support to overcome barriers to entry – to help people transitioning or new to the food system.

There were about 7,600 farms in Maine in 2020, according to the USDA’s Maine State Agriculture Overview.

USDA Census of Agriculture data shows a decline in the number of workers hired on Maine farms between 2012 and 2017. In 2017, Maine reported that 13,440 workers were hired on 2,230 farms. In 2012, these figures amounted to 15,072 workers hired on 2,415 farms.

In Cumberland County, according to the USDA, there were 175 farms that reported a total of 1,059 workers in 2017. In 2012, 251 farms were reported and 1,269 workers.

According to Nancy McBrady, director of agriculture, food and rural resources for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the labor shortage facing Maine farms is pronounced, although it varies depending on the specific farm, and is a problem that probably lasts for decades. .

“When you think about agricultural work, because it’s so seasonal and can be so resource-intensive over a short period of time, and because we have so many different types of farms, there’s no one perfect worker if you will,” says McBrady. “It’s kind of case by case or culture by culture.”

Common challenges for farms trying to attract workers can stem from their rural location, leading to transportation issues, insufficient housing for workers and a lack of child care, McBrady said.

Some farms are also struggling to compete with wages and benefits offered by other employers, McBrady said, due to a range of inconsistencies in the farming industry that impact bottom lines, such as working conditions. market and the environment. The pandemic has also exacerbated the shortage, McBrady added, an example being the struggle of migrants or their inability to travel to the state or country.

Nate Drummond, co-owner of Six River Farm, said while the labor shortage hasn’t hurt the Bowdoinham farm, hiring has been increasingly difficult and stressful.

Six River is a 40 acre farm, growing a range of vegetable crops on 25 acres each year. The staff usually consists of 12 year-round employees, and during the summer this number increases to around 30 people. Six River Farm began in 2007, and Drummond, along with other local farmers, offered feedback while developing the farm skills training program.

In part, Drummond attributes the labor shortage to a devaluing public perception of agricultural work, where right now in the country there is a “common idea that agricultural work is tedious, senseless and painful”.

“At least here in Maine, I don’t think it’s fully representative of the range of farm work that’s out there,” Drummond said. “Overall they are quite small, offer quite diverse work, which can often be very rewarding and satisfying for people.”

Access to food, childcare, transportation as well as career support through Goodwill’s Workforce Solutions program will be available to program participants. The part-time training program is remunerated and will seek to accommodate participants’ schedules and other needs.

For more information about the Farm Worker Training Program and to apply, visit merrymeetingfoodcouncil.org/farm-skills.

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