The Maine Potato Board has been having trouble recruiting people to work in its annual bruise survey program, even at an hourly wage of $14.
From mid-September through the end of October during the harvest, potato bruise testers drive around The County, stopping at farms and taking samples with growers. This year, the data they collected suggests that the incidence of serious bruises on Maine potatoes has increased from 3 percent last year to 5 percent.
The survey took about half as many samples this year as last, however, partly due to a shortage of workers able to serve in the temporary positions, said George McLaughlin, an agricultural engineer with the Maine Potato Board.
“All the growers are challenged to find workers,” he said.
“We lost a long-time bruise inspector,” McLaughlin said at the board’s last monthly meeting, referring to a retiree who died. Another senior citizen who used to take on the temporary work recently stopped because of his age.
This past fall, the service employed one retiree who has worked in the job for six years, plus a part-timer who also works as an elementary school teacher, while McLaughlin and other board staff worked as well.
“It’s not that we’re not able to pay them a decent wage,” he said, mentioning that he’s tried to pay above the offerings of other seasonal farm positions, with this year’s rate at $14 per an hour.
It’s a good job for retirees, people looking for a short-term part-time job, or students, McLaughlin said. “As long as you’re able to communicate with the grower, that’s the key.”
For high school students, though, it could be difficult to fit the gig into the harvest break, in school districts that only take 10 days. “And a lot of the kids are involved in sports,” McLaughlin said.
Another issue is that the nature of the job requires a car, which for some job seekers can be a barrier.
“I had one individual say, ‘Would you provide the vehicle, because I don’t have a car?’” McLaughlin recalled. “Because of insurance purposes, we couldn’t.”
The trouble finding workers has left the Maine Potato Board wondering about the future of the bruise testing program. Farmers do notice their own bruise problems, but the 30-year-old service does help show industry trends in potato bruising, rates of which have declined from around 9 percent of the crop during the 1980s.
“How do continue it? Should we continue it? What form should it take?” asked Maine Potato Board executive director Don Flannery. “I think one of the challenges is going to be finding the people to do it. I don’t expect it to be any easier next year than it was this year.”