This summer, when Ian Jerolmack should have been getting trays ready for seed, spreading fertilizer, and setting up drip tape on his Bowdoinham farm, he was, instead, begging for bodies.

Like many other diversified vegetable farms in Maine, Jerolmack’s Stonecipher Farm, which provides food to many of Portland’s trendiest restaurants, was starving for farmhands. Until this month, Jerolmack never knew from one day to the next which of his hourly laborers would show up. One day he’d have eight workers; the next, one. He kept taking out ads and, desperate for help, he’d hire anyone who answered.

It didn’t help. Maybe a third of the work that needed to get done was getting done.

“I was constantly drowning in the day-to-day stuff that I shouldn’t be doing, and the big-picture stuff just wasn’t happening,” said Jerolmack, who has owned Stonecipher Farm since 2009. “And so the farm was getting behind in profound ways. I lost at least 50 percent of my crops this year. This has been a catastrophic year for us, and it’s been almost entirely about labor.”

Jerolmack almost lost his farm this year, and he is still not out of the weeds. He’s just one of many Maine farmers who is dealing with a shortage of hourly workers – the people who weed the fields and harvest the vegetables that end up at your local farmers market and, ultimately, on your plate.

The labor shortage that has been plaguing Maine’s hospitality industry is harming the state’s agriculture industry as well. Finding enough farm workers is “a relentless challenge, literally from northern Maine to southern Maine,” says Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Ian Jerolmack eventually found a few workers who have helped him salvage some crops. Staff photo by Derek Davis

After the 2008 recession, there was a boom in aspiring farmers, fueled in part by the local foods movement, said Jason Lilley, sustainable agriculture professional at the Cumberland County University of Maine Cooperative Extension. At the time, many recent high school and college grads were struggling to find work, so they snapped up farm jobs.

That tide of workers has receded.

“I don’t know if it’s more job opportunities, or if it’s just people are realizing how hard the work is, but that local labor pool isn’t really there anymore,” Lilley said.

The labor shortage is most acute on small- to medium-sized farms, especially diversified vegetable and fruit farms that don’t already use migrant labor, according to Lilley.

“I was just talking to one guy yesterday, and he hasn’t been able to get the crops out of the field,” Lilley said. Not only has food rotted in the field, but even some of the crops he manages to harvest are of poor quality because he didn’t have enough workers to weed and apply pest control.

Organic vegetable farms typically rely on hand labor throughout the growing season, which usually means hiring a lot of high school and college kids, recent college graduates, or people who just need the work. Farmers can legally hire workers as young as 14; to operate machinery, they must be at least 16 years old. Pay rates range from $8-$10 on the low end to perhaps $15 per hour on the high end.

Farmers may also take advantage of the H2A visa program, a federal program that allows growers to bring in legal foreign workers on a temporary visa to do agricultural work. The program isn’t capped, so farmers can bring in as many workers as they’d like – but the program is also more expensive than hiring locally because it requires that farms provide free housing and transportation to and from work sites.

Farmers have complained for years about the expense of the H2A program, and the red tape that has caused perpetual delays in handing out visas – increasingly so in recent years, as demand for farm workers has risen and the national labor shortage has worsened. The Trump administration issued a statement in May pledging to modernize the system, even as its immigration policies have worried farmers relying on migrant labor.

“It’s a daunting process,” said Joe Young, executive director of the New England Apple Council in New Hampshire, one of the agencies that brings H2A workers to New England, and chairman of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. “It is overregulated and not easy to navigate.” Despite the high costs and onerous paperwork, Young says he’s heard from at least three new farms in Maine interested in the program.

Ian Jerolmack holds weeds he pulled from his fields at Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham. His difficulty in finding workers to weed and pick crops is shared by other Maine farmers this year. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“I’ve had a significant increase in growers (in New England) calling me, requesting more information on the program or wanting to get into the program,” he said.

Lilley said in the past it has been mostly medium-to-large vegetable farms and apple orchards that use the H2A program in Maine, but now a lot of smaller operations are considering it.

“It’s an expensive option for a lot of (farmers), but at least it’s kind of guaranteed,” he said, “and it’s people who typically are interested in working and who are usually pretty quick at what they’re doing. The blueberry farms use a lot of migrant labor for their harvest, but now I’ve got 10-acre vegetable farms that are talking about it.”

Ryan Dennett, New Farmers Programs coordinator at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Unity, says she’s heard from a lot of stressed-out farmers this year who are short on workers, or good workers, and need help finding more. They’re interested in hourly workers, H2A workers, and members of MOFGA’s well-known Farm Apprenticeship Program, which matches people who want to learn how to farm with Maine growers who need extra help.

Compensation for apprentices ranges from room and board and a $50 per week stipend, to room and board and an $800- to $1,000-per-week stipend, Dennett said.

But the apprenticeship program has been in decline since 2013, when it reached a peak of 314 applications and 120 participating farms. That year, according to Dennett, the program placed 102 applicants on Maine farms.

By contrast, so far this year the program has received 82 applications, 40 apprentices have been placed and just 49 farms are participating.

Vegetable farms that used the apprenticeship program in their early years, Dennett said, have now grown and would rather pay an hourly wage than find the time to teach apprentices – thus, competition for the shrinking pool of hourly workers has grown. And potential apprentices’ goals have changed, too.

“I’m hearing a lot more of the applicants that come to our events say, ‘I don’t know if I want to work on a farm. I’m interested in homesteading,’ ” Dennett said.

Dennett added that Maine’s farmer apprentice program is a longstanding one. As newer programs have gotten up and running in other parts of the country, that has diluted the pool of available workers for Maine, she said.

ROMANTIC NOTIONS

Jerolmack ran his farm with apprentices for a while, but the good ones, he said, were “few and far between.” Whether workers are apprentices or hourly employees, he said, if they’re “educated Americans,” they often last just one growing season.

“That’s what a lot of organic, small farms around here are running on – 20-somethings who have a lot of education, who we’ll probably not have for very long. They’re hard to train because they know everything already, whereas migrant workers, they’re really easy to train. You show them what to do, and they do it.”

Weeds grow in one of the fields with cabbage that Jerolmack says may end up being a complete waste for him because the produce wasn’t tended to properly. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The idyllic vision of farm life fades quickly for some hourly workers after spending 10- to 12-hour days in the hot sun, he said. They discover they miss their family and friends more than they love harvesting broccoli and carrots.

“I’ve had people completely freak out because all of a sudden they’ve chosen to isolate themselves in some rural setting, which everybody loves the sound of when they read books about it,” Jerolmack said. “And then they do it, and they’re like ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

Dennett has heard that story before. “The apprentice program draws a lot of young people who have very romantic notions,” she said, “and then to actually live it out is sometimes a difficult transition. A lot of people adapt very well, but some may feel homesick or maybe don’t have the work ethic they thought they did.”

Jerolmack says most farms his size don’t use migrant workers. Stonecipher is an exception, occasionally using H2A workers or migrants with green cards. He hires both through an agency. He was expecting a crew of Mexican workers to arrive in the spring, but no one showed up – and he never found out why. He looked for other hourly workers to fill the gap. (In a typical year, he hires five workers to help him during growing season.)

Jerolmack inspects his partially filled truck of vegetables. “Our year was completely in shambles,” he says. He added, “There were whole acres of crops I could have saved if they had just gotten weeded.” Staff photo by Derek Davis

He advertised online, saying he would pay cash daily for laborers, no experience required – “and so I got the kind of people you get when you advertise that way.”

His first flush of hires included people with emotional problems, people without driver’s licenses, and – he suspects – people with criminal records and addictions. (The police showed up at his farm.)

In May, Jerolmack flew workers in from Puerto Rico, but ended up firing them. He hired some Mexican migrant workers who still had time left on their visas, but they didn’t work out either.

“Nobody really cared,” Jerolmack said, and it showed in their work.

“People just don’t show up,” he said. “They come in an hour and a half late with some pathetic excuse. We’re in a day and age, in a work culture, where people don’t even feel like they need to come up with excuses anymore why they miss work. They just miss it. They come in an hour late, and they don’t even say sorry.”

Lilley says other farmers have had similar experiences. If farm workers last the first day, he said, they are often gone after the first week, “and then you’ve got to go scrounging during your planting season to find people.”

Then there’s “the cellphone thing.”

“Almost every farm that I walk into, they have up on their to-do list board in huge letters: ‘PUT THE PHONES AWAY,’ ” Lilley said. “People have to keep moving to make it worth the cost of having them in the field, and if they’re sitting there texting, the farmer is losing money.”

By May, other farms had scooped up all the more employable people. Jerolmack just kept advertising, and whenever anyone showed up, he’d hire them “and just let them winnow themselves out.”

“I’ve probably had 40 people work here this year,” he said.

As his desperation increased, he tried to hire prisoners, voc-tech students, and anyone else he could think of who might do the work. He organized a “volunteer day” July 26, inviting people to the farm to weed or do other simple chores. “Everyone really enjoyed promoting it and ‘liking’ it on Facebook, but nobody came,” Jerolmack said, still sounding a little bitter.

Actually, a few neighbors showed up, but for just an hour or so – not nearly long enough to make a difference. Jerolmack felt abandoned by his community, especially the people who are always urging others to buy local and support local farmers.

Eventually, Jerolmack found a couple of migrant Americans who were “awesome,” and in August ended up working with an agency that brings in Mexican workers with green cards from other states. “I’m good now,” he said. “Our year was completely in shambles, and honestly I can say that if I had not found these four Mexicans, I daresay that I would have been defaulting on my mortgage.”

But the damage had been done. He lost his broccoli and cauliflower crops, his first carrots, his first beets, his first radishes, all of his scallions, and much of his lettuce.

“There were whole acres of crops I could have saved if they had just gotten weeded,” he said.

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS

The state, MOFGA and the extension service are all trying to address the labor shortage. The state’s agriculture and labor departments teamed up with the Kennebec Valley Community College in May to hold an Agricultural Labor Field Day, a career day for people interested in working on farms.

MOFGA is holding Farm Training Workshops for apprentices, and will join the extension service in holding a “listening session” for farmers (the date is still to be determined) to talk about these issues and brainstorm solutions.

Some farmers are considering raising pay. “I’ve heard a lot of people talking about they’re going to have to do that,” Lilley said, “but they don’t know how. What I’ve heard more of is people are going to cut back on their acreage and the amount that they’re planting.”

Jerolmack would have done that in May had he known things would get so bad. Although he has enough field help for now, he’ll need more pickers when carrots and beets come in. He also needs help constructing his greenhouses.

Next year, he’ll start hiring his field crew earlier, he said, “but right now, I’m still just trying to survive.”