One Maine farm lost 8,000 pounds of carrots because there weren't enough workers to get them out of the ground.
Ian Jerolmack grew frustrated trying to find enough local workers for his Stonecipher Farm. For the past 10 years he has employed a crew from Mexico through the federal H2-A visa program. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Last year, a combination of weather conditions and lack of sufficient workers forced a southern Maine small farmer to leave close to 8,000 pounds of carrots — about a quarter of the entire crop — in the ground.

While things are better this season, Nate Drummond of Six River Farm in Bowdoinham said finding and keeping reliable farm workers is an ongoing struggle for farmers.

“This year we have done OK,” Drummond said. “For most small businesses, it’s been a challenge to hire enough workers, and for farmers sometimes it can be more of a challenge than for others.”

That can mean long days in the fields for farm owners or, as in the case on Drummond’s farm, crops left to rot in the ground.

Labor issues on farms are nothing new in Maine, according to Tricia Rouleau, farm network director at Maine Farmland Trust. Industries around the state and country are facing similar problems, especially in the wake of the pandemic. But in the case of farming, the stakes of a labor shortage are high because it can lead to food literally being left to rot in the ground.

“In general, some of the themes and patterns are finding farm workers who have been around for a while,” Rouleau said. “Things like not being able to fill positions, lack of people applying and a lack of qualified applicants.”

But she said there are new trends, including farmers being “ghosted” by workers who abruptly cut contact with potential employers with no warning or explanation.

“We are hearing from farmers of job offers being made and they never hear back from the person,” Rouleau said. “Others are saying they have had workers show up and then never come back.”

At Six River Farm, Drummond said he’s experienced a certain degree of casualness in the hiring process on the part of people saying they want a job.

“We hear from people who say they are interested in working,” Drummond said. “But when we get back to them, we never hear back.”

There can be a variety of reasons farm workers don’t come back to their jobs mid-season. Among them is the simple reality of what that work entails.

“One of the things with farming is that it’s something many people think of romantically,” Drummond said. “But there is also the hard physical outdoor work [and] some people really love it and it works out well, and there are others where it’s just not a good match for them as a physical experience.”

There is a finite number of people willing to do that work, according to Ian Jerolmack of Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham.

“There are farms that lean on local help and the trend seems to be [employees] start getting burned out in August or September or quit this time of year because suddenly they have the sniffles,” Jerolmack said. “Once people stop coming to work and don’t show up, the harvest takes longer and things just get worse.”

Farmers use every means possible to find those workers. In addition to posting available jobs on a farm website, those looking for workers advertise in local papers and on local television, list jobs with hiring agencies, post on social media, put flyers on bulletin boards in populated businesses and word of mouth.

There is also the reality of paying and receiving a living wage for employers and workers, respectively.

The average wages for farm workers in Maine range between $12.15 to $21.12 an hour, according to several online employment data sites. Drummond is currently offering between $15.50 and $16 an hour for farm labor, according to the Six River Farm website.

“Most farmers want to be good employers with good wages,” Rouleau said. “But with costs increasing in recent years, it can mean a squeeze in profits, and that can mean paying [workers] less and not being able to make investments in equipment and infrastructure.”

There are 7,600 farms in Maine averaging around 178 acres, according to the most recent census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture census. The state’s most recent census data shows in 2012 there were 15,072 farm workers employed in Maine.

What the census does not count are the numbers of open positions on farms in Maine that farmers are unable to fill due to the labor shortage. Without sufficient help on a farm, it’s hard to plant, tend, harvest and market crops.

Frustration with finding and retaining employees in the local labor market is what led Jerolmack to utilize the federal  H2-A visa program. This allows farmers to hire nonimmigrant foreign seasonal workers.

For the last decade, Jerolmack has hired 10 workers from the same village in Mexico and he said it’s removed a huge stressor from his small, market garden farm.

“I found myself counting on American employees less and less,” he said. “Now I am fortunate enough to have seasonal help that I can develop a longer relationship with.”

Things are looking good on the employee front this year, Drummond said, but it’s not something he will ever take for granted. And while leaving behind all those carrots last year did not financially devastated his operations, he in no way wants a repeat of that.

“On a farm you never feel you have too many workers and when a good person presents themselves, you want to take advantage of that,” he said. “We will always hire the right person.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.