February 26, 2020

Project seeks to help farms find laborers

PORTLAND – A new program initiated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension is trying to help farmers overcome seasonal labor shortages.

The Maine Farms Project aims to match workers such as immigrants and refugees – many of whom have farming experience in their native countries – with job opportunities at farms and other agricultural businesses around the state.

Those interested in such work are being asked to fill out surveys that are available through the Cooperative Extension, an educational outreach agency with programs on agriculture, natural resources, families and youth development. Farmers and operators of greenhouses and nurseries also are requested to fill out surveys explaining what skills are necessary for the jobs they need filled.

When a pool of willing workers is identified, Cooperative Extension staff will run a training program for the prospective employees, teaching them skills such as tractor safety and how to work with pesticides, handle animals and milk cows.

“I think it’s going to be a win-win situation,” said Richard Brzozowski, a professor with Cooperative Extension. “The farmers are going to benefit and the workers are going to benefit.”

Brzozowski says the demanding nature of the work is a major reason farm jobs are difficult to fill.

Pay varies, depending on the type of job and the expertise involved. Typically, farmers pay at least minimum wage – $6.25 per hour – but will pay more to keep reliable workers.

Brzozowski hopes the project may involve some “creative approaches” for compensating workers – perhaps providing them with a plot for growing vegetables or payments in the form of produce, meat, eggs, chickens – or even hay for a worker who owns a horse.

Mohammed Issak, an elder in Portland’s Somali immigrant community, is intrigued by the project and wants to learn more. He believes it could benefit his people, who want reliable jobs.

“Traditionally, we are animal herders,” he said. “Farming and agricultural-related activities are our field of expertise.”

However, transportation could be a problem if the farms were far from Portland, he said.

Jennifer Babich, acting director of Catholic Charities Maine’s refugee and immigration services, also believes the program has potential.

“A lot of people do feel good and excited, if they were farmers, to find that familiar work,” she said.

But the seasonal nature of the work would pose problems because most people need permanent jobs that have health benefits, she said.

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