BOWDOINHAM — The state’s low unemployment rate has been good news for Maine workers, but it’s put the hurt on local farms.

“We’ve been hearing for the past two or three years from several statewide organizations and directly from farmers that there has been a farm labor shortage and many farmers have had a hard time finding enough workers,” said Harriet Van Vleck, coordinator for the  Merrymeeting Food Council.

The council is holding a roundtable Monday to help tackle the worker shortage. Farmers and state agency representatives will discuss possible solutions to the worker shortage, Van Vleck said.

In 2008-09 during an economic recession, local food networks were growing in Maine and people were going into farming for financial and quality of life reasons, she said. Farming jobs drew recent college graduates interested in growing a local food system and getting into sustainable agriculture.

“That is changing,” she said.

Nate Drummond of Six River Farm in Bowdoinham agrees.

“There are so (fewer) people out there who are interested in working on farms locally and I think part of that might be an overall job market that is very strong right now,” he said. “It’s fairly low wage work and a lot of these types of similar low wage (jobs) might be hiring so it has felt more competitive.”

It has put pressure on farmers to pay more to attract workers, and to find ways to keep employees working at least part-time on the farm during the winter.

“You can make $13 at McDonald’s now,” said Bowdoinham vegetable farmer Ian Jerolmack. “Who is it that’s going to show up and do this really hard, exhausting work in the sun?”

When he started farming in 2008 unemployment was really high, “and that just rippled,” he said.

Recent college graduates would get bored working at a coffee shop for $8.50 an hour so they’d work at a farm, even if it was only $7 an hour, he said. Now college graduates have more options.

As of October, the last month data was available, the jobless rate in Maine was 2.8%.

Jerolmack said that every farmer has had trouble finding or keeping help. While he’s employed migrant workers before, this is the first year he turned to the H-2A visa program for four workers. The program allows U.S. employers to bring immigrants to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs.

It is expensive and he must provide housing and transportation for the workers, but it provides security. He paid them $13.25 an hour and that wage is set to go up more than a dollar next year, he said.

The roundtable starts with dinner at 5 p.m. at Merrymeeting Hall located at 13 School St., in Bowdoinham and the public is welcome. Farmers and representatives from the Department of Labor; Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; the University of Maine Cooperative Extension will participate.

Attendees are asked to register ahead by visiting the Merrymeeting Food Council Facebook page or emailing [email protected]

The Merrymeeting Food Council is a network of farms, fisheries, businesses, nonprofits, government, and individuals working together to advance the food system in the 14 towns surrounding Merrymeeting Bay.

 

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