New Initiative Aims To Ease Maine's Farm Labor Shortage

Sep 6, 2020

In recent decades, farms have faced difficulties in finding enough people to work. This year, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry decided to try and do something about it with an initiative called FarmingForME, including a social media blitz, an awareness and education campaign and a new jobs web link dedicated to open farming positions.

Department Commissioner Amanda Beal told Maine Public Host Jennifer Mitchell more about the initiative.

Mitchell: So what’s the initiative all about and why now?

Beal: We’ve had difficulty filling agricultural jobs. It’s not a new phenomenon, but this year, it has certainly been exacerbated by COVID-19. So, you know, our intent in developing this initiative is really to create a campaign that’s going to raise awareness of agricultural labor needs, and to recruit Maine people to fill a variety of those jobs, hopefully. We’ve been putting the word out about this campaign through social media primarily, word of mouth, and I think we will develop as we go along. As I said, we designed this campaign knowing that labor has been an issue in the past. And so this is a campaign that’s designed to sort of grow its legs as we move forward.

And as you say, it has been a long-standing issue that sort of maybe came to a head this year, has the campaign had any impact?

Well, I think it’s it’s really too soon to tell what the impact of the campaign is. But what we do know is that since we launched it in June, there have been almost 500 unique pageviews of the Maine JobLink agriculture landing page to date. So we do know that the word is getting out.

How big of a deal is this issue of being short of labor, and what did it mean for farmers this year?

It’s a big deal. I mean, for some farmers ahead of the season, they were concerned about labor, so they planted less, they grew less and so of course that has an income impact on them. And also it means that there’s less agricultural product available. For others, it has been a hard choice to just leave, for example, blueberry fields unraked because the labor just isn’t available. So again, that’s income that they don’t get, even though they have costs that are fixed and that they have to incur throughout the year. So it’s definitely a big deal.

What message are you trying to get out to potential job seekers? Obviously, there are a lot more folks out there who might be looking for work or, you know, just looking for something because it’s been such an extraordinary year. What is the campaign trying to show them?

I think there are a few things here. I mean, one, to help people to see that there are a variety of jobs available in agriculture. I was just on the Maine JobLink site, and there were over 100 jobs posted, everywhere from maple operations to orchards to seed companies to diversified produce firms, really trying to get people to see that there are a lot of different opportunities out there.

Some of the challenge, of course, has come with the seasonality of some of these jobs. How do you get around that?

You’re right, some of these jobs are definitely seasonal. But I think that as we’re seeing, a lot of farms become very innovative in ways to stretch the growing season — the season is getting longer. And we do have other seasonal jobs that offset, that are available at other times of the year. So, there’s a lot of opportunity here. I mean, we do still have a really strong agricultural base in the state, it’s a real pillar of our economy. And I think that we will see opportunities continue to grow in the agricultural sector for employment.

So you have some initial idea of how many people are being reached with this first campaign. Is it something that’s going to be tracked going forward, or was this just a quick effort in the time of COVID-19?

We wanted to respond to the urgent needs that were before us right now, but we also wanted to build this in a way that was going to be something that we can expand upon and look for other ways to promote it, look for other ways to add value and hopefully to be able to measure the impact of it over time. As people are interested in farming, in where their food comes from, it’s a great opportunity to get in there and be part of that and to learn about how our food is grown and how we get it to people and just be part of that really important work.