Merrymeeting Food Council will launch a pilot Farm Skills Training Program in February in an effort to ease a labor shortage afflicting local farms. The program, which will consist mostly of on-the-farm training at Growing to Give in Brunswick, will target low-income workers.

Most of the program’s on-the-farm training sessions will take place at Growing to Give, a Brunswick nonprofit. Contributed / Growing to Give

“I think the pandemic has underscored for a lot of people how important our local food system is,” said Harriet Van Vleck, coordinator for Merrymeeting Food Council, a grassroots organization dedicated to advancing local food systems. “Maine imports about 90% of its food supply, and without supporting our local farms we won’t change that number.”

Many Maine farms have struggled to find an adequate labor supply in recent years, according to Tori Jackson, professor of agriculture at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

That shortage, which has only worsened since the arrival of COVID-19, stems from two sources, she said: a surplus of other unskilled jobs currently available to workers and a growing demand for local food.

“People are starting farms every day in Maine,” Jackson said. “Along with that comes the need for people to be doing that work.”

The Farm Skills Training Program aims to solve the labor problem while also helping economically disadvantaged Mainers develop marketable skills, Jackson said. Applicants over 25 must qualify for government aid like food stamps or SNAP benefits; while anyone age 16-24 is invited to apply for the program by the Feb 1. deadline, organizers will give priority to those who qualify for government assistance.


Participants, who will earn $14 per hour for 8-10 hours each week, will also have access to child care, food and transportation support, according to Merrymeeting. Much of this support will come from Goodwill Workforce Solutions, one of several organizations partnering with Merrymeeting on the project.

Growing to Give farm manager Theda Lyden, right, stands with Colleen Donlan of the Cumberland County Gleaners. Several local food organizations have partnered with Merrymeeting Food Council to organize the Farm Skills Training Program. Contributed / Growing to Give

The group of about 10 participants will learn farm skills like planting, tool care and soil management, Van Vleck said. They’ll also get the chance to connect with Midcoast farms who may hire them at the conclusion of the approximately 10-week program.

Off-the-farm sessions on general skills like interviewing and negotiating will help participants move forward in the job market even if they decide not to pursue farming, Jackson said.

That’s important, according to Six River Farm owner Nate Drummond, because the work isn’t for everyone.

“As stressful as it is to hire folks,” said Drummond, who co-owns the Bowdoinham vegetable farm with his wife, Gabrielle Gosselin, “it’s even more stressful to hire someone who comes and works for a month and then realizes, ‘This isn’t what I want.’”

The program, he hopes, will give workers a new perspective on a career that they might not otherwise have considered.


“Being outside, growing food for people, working with your body in a physical manner – that’s actually a really positive experience,” Drummond said. “It can be really satisfying work.”

If the pilot program is successful, partner groups like the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association may look to reproduce the formula, Jackson said.

“If we can find a way through this pilot to form a model that could be exported to other communities around the state,” Jackson said, “I think that could go a really long way to solving potentially both homelessness and farm labor.”

The deadline to apply for the program is Feb. 1. To apply or for more information, go to


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