With harvest on the horizon and the summer slipping away, COVID-19 continues to wreak new havoc on Maine farms in diverse ways. Some farmers say the pandemic is dealing blows to their business plans and complicating an already complex labor market — even driving some to the brink of disaster.
When a hilltop property in Greene came on the market back in 2014, eighth generation farmer Harry Ricker knew he had the perfect expansion idea for the family farm, Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner.
At Vista, 650 acres of grapes, fruit trees, forests and fields are set against a 360-degree panorama of the Androscoggin Valley. The property also features a big renovated barn and a house.
“We’ve got to sell some stuff to reduce our debt, because this place sitting empty doesn’t work,” Ricker said.
Ricker did what many farmers in recent years have been advised to do, diversifying to create more stable revenue streams for the farm through agritourism. Think hayrides and corn mazes, pick-your-own pumpkins, even camping, glamping and party venues.
Ricker bought Vista not just for the farm acreage but for the view, and thanks to a steady stream of wedding parties who also liked the view, plus the launch of a new tasting room for Ricker Hill’s new cider products, he says the enterprise broke even for the first time last year.
But so far, 2020 has been nothing but red ink.
“We still can’t use the buildings. Everyone else can — but not tasting rooms,” he says. “The house right connected to the other end of this barn we Airbnb. We got shut down for four months. It’s painful. And a lot of that rental went with events, weddings and stuff and that’s been shut down too. So the diversification in our choice wasn’t set up for a pandemic. It’s frustrating.”
It’s not the only thing keeping Ricker up at night. He’s banking on a good apple year to see them through, but the pandemic is already causing new problems and exacerbating an existing one: labor.
Even in a normal year, Ricker says local workers seldom apply for seasonal jobs on the farm. To bridge the shortfall, he brings in workers from Jamaica on the H-2A visa program. So far, two of the four workers he has hired decided not to travel due to COVID-19. And with the way the program is structured, he can’t give those visas to other workers who might want to come, so he’s already starting the summer shorthanded.
Now he’s nervous that the same thing will happen with the 50-60 pickers he’s expecting to arrive for harvest.
“They don’t want to get sick and bring it home with them and their wives don’t want them to come back sick. It’s been difficult finding people because the people who are on unemployment are making so much money. We might get our wages up close to what they get on unemployment, but they’re tired and dirty at the end of the day. So that’s been difficult,” he says.
Farms that host seasonal help also face new problems and expenses this year. Guidance released by state health officials details a checklist similar to that for summer camps.
Ricker says workers will be put into designated family style groups. They’ll need to travel, eat, sleep and work together as a unit. Housing will need to be expanded, built or remodeled to create enough distance in shared spaces like bunkrooms, bathrooms and kitchens. Then there are concerns about getting COVID-19 tests when workers arrive, fulfilling quarantine if needed, plus enough personal protective equipment.
Ricker, who has just one lung, says as dangerous as COVID-19 would be for him personally, he’s far more concerned about what it could do to the business.
“Our greatest worry, which would be catastrophic for us, is that somebody gets COVID and they go in like they do to these food processing plants and shut down everything for two weeks and the apples fall on the ground,” he says. “That doesn’t work.”
While uncertainty may be plaguing the H-2A program due to travel restrictions and health concerns, the program has been declared necessary. But another visa program used by some farms, and many other businesses as well, has been halted altogether: the J-1 visa.
President Donald Trump, citing concerns over joblessness caused by the pandemic, shut that program down at the end of June until further notice.
The J-1 program brings in people known as “trainees” for six or 12 months in a work-stay environment, where the trainee is given room and board plus a stipend. Some farms use the J-1 because they’re ineligible under the seasonal, temporary H-2A program. But those farmers — mostly nonseasonal meat and dairy farmers — say they still face the same labor problems as other farms with no relief.
“I have talked till I’m blue in the face to agricultural commissioners, all of our senators and down the line, and everybody agrees, but nothing ever gets done,” says John Barnstein of Mainely Poultry in Warren.
Barnstein says the J-1 has helped him bridge a labor gap for 25 years. The farm raises 50,000 chickens and 5,000 meat ducks per year to sell at farmers markets and stores around the state. There’s also a kitchen in Belfast where his daughter and a couple of part-time workers turn some of the meat into pies and sausage.
Barnstein says at the moment, he’s working 16 hours a day, every day, on the farm, with two trainees — half the number he normally has — working 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week. But with those trainees scheduled to leave soon and no more on the way, Barnstein says he facing an impossible workload.
“I have to face reality after doing it for 35 years,” he says. “It’s been my life and I really don’t want to give it up. I’m not going to be able to pick up the slack of 150 hours.”
Ironically, it’s a great time to be in poultry. Demand for locally raised produce, especially meat, has gone up significantly since the pandemic began. But farming is “not a job, it’s a way of life,” Barnstein says. And with a modest $9 per hour stipend, room and board and expected round-the-clock attendance, it’s one that visa proponents say just isn’t appealing to many local job seekers.
“There’s a lot of small farms in Maine where the trainees or interns live on the farm. You can’t find an American really that will do that,” says Anna Whitaker with the nonprofit WISE Foundation.
Whitaker says she normally places about 60 or 70 J-1 applicants in farm stays. She says a number of dairy operations and cheesemakers, as well as Mainely Poultry, have been left in a tight spot.
Whitaker, who originally came to the United States from the Netherlands on a J-1 visa herself, says the program works well for farmers because the applicants are already interested in farming as a career. She says they’re willing to commit to the lifestyle for six or 12 months at a time in exchange for the learning opportunity, but she says she doesn’t think the Trump administration understands that.
“We hope that the State Department will review — and the first time they will review the situation is at the end of this month — but I really don’t think they are going to lift the ban yet,” she says.
The next reassessment, she says, would be at the end of September.
That’s bad news for Mainely Poultry. Barnstein says so far, efforts to replace the trainees due to leave next month have been unsuccessful. With thousands of chickens and ducks needing care, and the recent arrival of 4,800 turkey poults to raise for the Thanksgiving market, he says if something doesn’t change fast, he may have to surrender the animals and get out of farming altogether.
Ricker says times are definitely tense for small farms trying to compete in a commodity market. He says so far, 2020 has proven very uncertain and very expensive, and some of those higher costs will have to be passed on to consumers. But he’s hopeful that the local customers, who have supported the farm for 217 years, will come through.
“We’re got a really nice crop of honey crisp. Hopefully we get that grown and picked, and that will help pay some of these bills, because the numbers don’t add up,” he says, “and it’s very frustrating.”