New on-farm training tackles two local issues

Merrymeeting Food Council will launch an agricultural skills training pilot program in February in a bid to address the labor shortage plaguing local farms. The program, which will consist primarily of on-farm training at Growing to Give in Brunswick, will target low-income workers.

Most of the program’s on-farm training sessions will take place at Growing to Give, a non-profit organization in Brunswick. Contribute / Grow to give

“I think the pandemic has underscored for a lot of people how important our local food system is,” said Harriet Van Vleck, coordinator of the Merrymeeting Food Council, a grassroots organization dedicated to advancing local food systems. “Maine imports about 90% of its food supply, and without supporting our local farms, we won’t change that number.”

Many Maine farms have struggled to find an adequate labor supply in recent years, according to Tori Jackson, professor of agriculture at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

This shortage, which has only worsened since the arrival of COVID-19, stems from two sources, she said: a surplus of other unskilled jobs currently available to workers and a growing demand for local food products.

“People are starting farms every day in Maine,” Jackson said. “With that comes the need for people to do that work.”

The agricultural skills training program aims to address the labor issue while helping economically disadvantaged Mainers develop marketable skills, Jackson said. Applicants over the age of 25 must have government supports such as food stamps or SNAP benefits; while anyone between the ages of 16 and 24 is welcome to apply for the program before the February 1 deadline, organizers will prioritize those who are eligible for government assistance.

Participants, who will earn $14 an hour for 8 to 10 hours a week, will also have access to childcare, food and transportation, according to Merrymeeting. Much of this support will come from Goodwill Workforce Solutions, one of several Merrymeeting partner organizations on the project.

Growing to Give Farm Manager Theda Lyden, right, alongside Colleen Donlan of the Cumberland County Gleaners. Several local food organizations partnered with the Merrymeeting Food Council to organize the agricultural skills training program. Contribute / Grow to give

The group of about 10 participants will learn agricultural skills such as planting, tool maintenance and soil management, Van Vleck said. They will also have the chance to connect with Midcoast farms who could hire them at the end of the approximately 10-week program.

Off-farm sessions on soft skills like interviewing and negotiation will help participants progress in the job market even if they decide not to pursue farming, Jackson said.

That’s important, according to Six River Farm owner Nate Drummond, because the job isn’t for everyone.

“As stressful as hiring people,” said Drummond, who co-owns the Bowdoinham vegetable farm with his wife, Gabrielle Gosselin, “it’s even more stressful hiring someone who comes to work for a month and then realizes: “is not what I want.

The program, he hopes, will give workers a new perspective on a career they might not otherwise have considered.

“Being outside, growing food for people, working with your body in a physical way – it’s actually a really positive experience,” Drummond said. “It can be really satisfying work.”

If the pilot program is successful, partner groups like the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association may seek to replicate the formula, Jackson said.

“If we can find a way through this pilot project to train a model that could be exported to other communities across the state,” Jackson said, “I think that could go a long way toward potentially solving both the homelessness and agricultural work.”

The deadline to apply for the program is February 1. To apply or for more information, go to merrymeetingfoodcouncil.org/farm-skills.

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