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Portland Press Herald

New Program Matches Farms With Workers; The Maine Farms Project Hopes To Fill Vacant Farm Jobs With Good Seasonal Workers, Including Immigrants


June 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Portland Press Herald, ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights reserved. 

Maxwell's Farm in Cape Elizabeth has so many cucumbers growing this week that the manager, Bill Bamford, says he hardly knows what to do with them. It's hard to find workers to pick the cucumbers, and the other vegetables and strawberries that the farm grows.

"Labor is one of our ongoing concerns. It's almost impossible to find local help these days," Bamford said. "In my business, there's a tremendous amount of hand labor, and most American kids these days, unless there's something they can ride on, they're not interested."

Maxwell's is among many Maine farms that are experiencing such labor shortages. The farms, as well as nurseries and greenhouses, are always hunting for good workers for their seasonal jobs.

Now, a new program initiated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension is trying to meet that need. The Maine Farms Project aims to match workers - including immigrants and refugees who have experience growing food or raising cattle and other animals 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 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, the Cooperative Extension's 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. The labor pool also could include Mainers such as teachers and college students who want summer jobs working outdoors.

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

"The work is hard and not many people want to work hard," he said. "Most Americans want a high-paying job that's easy."

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

Bamford said the hourly rate at Maxwell's typically ranges from minimum wage to about $8 an hour.

But there are other benefits to farm work, Brzozowski said. "It's a good healthy job. You're outdoors all day, or you can witness animals being born - rewards that you couldn't get just sitting behind a desk at a computer terminal."

And he 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.

Mohamed 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, he said transportation could be a problem if the farms are far from Portland.

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.

However, she said the seasonal nature of the work is a problem for people who need permanent jobs that have health benefits.

But a second wage earner in a refugee family or a teenager might be interested in farm work to supplement the family income, Babich said. And even seasonal work might appeal to someone who has just arrived in this country and needs a job immediately.

Antonio Montanez, who is from Puerto Rico and now lives in Portland, has worked at Maxwell's since the early 1990s, doing tasks such as planting vegetables and picking them. He says farm work is not easy but is a good way to make money fast.

Jim Hanna of Coastal Enterprises Inc., a community development organization based in Wiscasset, believes the Maine Farms Project could dovetail with one his organization is working on. The New American Sustainable Agriculture Project, which is still in the planning stages, aims to help immigrant farmers to own and operate their own farms here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION The Maine Farms Project,which seeks to match farmers with prospective employees, can be reached at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County at 780-4205 or (800) 287-1471, or at the extension's Web site,

Caption: Staff photos by John Patriquin Bill Bamford, the manager at Maxwell's Farm in Cape Elizabeth, says, "It's almost impossible to find local help these days." Antonio Montanez of Portland picks peas at Maxwell's Farm on Thursday. Montanez, a native of Puerto Rico, has worked at Maxwell's since the early 1990s and serves as the interpreter for Puerto Rican seasonal workers at the farm. Montanez says farm work is not easy but is a good way to make money fast.

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