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

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

Through a new pilot Farm Skills Training Program launched by the Merrymeeting Food Council, around 10 new farmers will learn the ins and outs of agriculture while stationed at Growing to Give farm in Brunswick.

The program will run from late winter through May 2022, and according to the council’s coordinator Harriet Van Vleck, the goal is to give participants access and the opportunity to develop farm and communications 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 towns and cities. Other organizations supporting the initiative include Goodwill Workforce Solutions, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, Tedford Housing and the UMaine Cooperative Extension.

“Most of the other agriculture training programs are focused on people who ultimately want to become farmers themselves and own their own business, and so are a little farther along in the process,” said Vleck. “We’re hoping to — by providing a lot of support to address barriers to entry — help people who are either transitioning or who are new to working in the food system.”

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

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Data from the USDA Census of Agriculture shows a declining number of workers hired on Maine farms between 2012 and 2017. In 2017, Maine reported 13,440 workers were hired across 2,230 farms. In 2012, those numbers stood at 15,072 workers hired across 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 Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Bureau Director of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources Nancy McBrady, the labor shortage facing Maine’s farms is pronounced, although varies based on the specific farm, and it’s a problem that is likely decades in the making.

“When you think about agricultural labor, because it is so seasonal and it can be so resource-intensive over a short period of time, and because we have so many different types of farms there isn’t one perfect worker if you will,” said McBrady. “It’s all sort of case by case or crop by crop driven.”

Common challenges for farms trying to attract workers can stem from their rural locations, leading to challenges with transportation, insufficient worker housing and a lack of childcare, McBrady said.

Some farms also struggle to compete with the wages and benefits offered by other employers, McBrady said, due to a range of inconsistencies in the agriculture business that impact the bottom line, such as market and environmental conditions. The pandemic also exacerbated the shortage, McBrady added, with an example being migrants’ struggle or inability to travel into the state or country.

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Nate Drummond, the co-owner of Six River Farm, said that while the labor shortage has not been detrimental to the Bowdoinham farm, hiring has been increasingly challenging and stressful.

Six River is a 40-acre farm, that grows a range of vegetable crops on 25-acres each year. Staff typically consists of 12 year-round employees, and during the summer that number increases to around 30 people. Six River Farm started in 2007, and Drummond, along with other local farmers, offered input while developing the Farm Skills Training program.

In part, Drummond attributes the shortage of labor to a depreciating public perception of farm work, where right now in the country, there is a “common idea that farm work is tedious, mindless, drudgery.”

“At least here in Maine, I don’t think that’s totally representative of the range of farm work that’s out there,” Drummond said. “By and large, they’re fairly small, offer fairly diverse work, which often can be really gratifying and satisfying to 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 paid and will look to accommodate the schedules and other needs of participants.

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

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