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Maine Blueberry Farmers Face Outbreaks And Other Challenges From Pandemic

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Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP File

The Maine Center for Disease Control is investigating a second outbreak of COVID-19 within Maine's wild blueberry industry.

Public health officials say three cases have been detected at Merrill Farms in Ellsworth. This after eight cases were reported earlier in the week at Hancock Foods, a blueberry processor in Washington Junction.

Eric Venturini executive director of the Maine Blueberry Commission, says growers and processors who rely on migrant workers are following protocols developed this spring. He says universal testing of incoming workers — none of whom have shown symptoms — is identifying positive cases, as intended.

"It's catching cases, and preventing spread within these places of business. It's catching them before they step into a plant, step into a field — which is exactly the point."

Venturini says some growers could be left shorthanded by outbreaks at a time when they can least afford it.

In an effort to anticipate labor gaps, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry last month launched an initiative called FarmingForME, which is designed to reach out to potential job seekers in-state. Venturini says given the recent outbreaks, they are stepping up those outreach efforts.

"I hope it will drive some folks who want to work to our wild blueberry business so we can get our crop harvested and get it in the freezer."

As of Thursday, there were at least 80 farm-related job postings on the state job site linked from FarmingForMe.