STARKS — For the last six years, Kyle Costigan has worked summers at Sweet Land Farm, where he cares for crops and helps harvest hay.
Costigan, 21, said he has enjoyed the work but isn’t sure if he will continue. He’s a senior at Unity College, and he probably will leave the farm to start his career, he said. That will mean the farmer he works for will have to find new help, a task that is familiar but still not easy.
“Farmers who really need dedicated workers end up having to hire people that just come here to make money, and it’s hard to keep people. Generally they come and go, so there is always the need for more help and a need to get the word out,” said Jay Robinson, owner of Sweet Land Farm.
Getting the word out is exactly what a new group called the Starks Farm Hands is seeking to do. The Farm Hands, a project of the Starks Agriculture Commission, would create a database of farmers in need of help and laborers looking for work, in an effort to connect more local people with employment. The project is similar to another one to establish a farm worker cooperative in the northern part of the state that also includes Somerset County.
Jim Murphy, chairman of the agriculture commission, said the need to connect farmers and workers is one that he became aware of when he first moved to Maine more than 20 years ago and started his own small farm.
“I knew that growers such as myself, on a small scale and even larger growers here in Starks, periodically need help,” he said. The Farm Hands, one of the first projects being undertaken by the Starks Agriculture Commission, the first organization of its kind to form in the state last year, is still mostly an idea, although Murphy said about eight workers and two farms have signed up so far.
They also have the benefit of having a model, even if it is a young one, to look at. In May, an Orono-based group launched the state’s first cooperative for farm workers. That group similarly will seek to provide farmers with extra help during their busiest times of the year while offering workers access to year-round farm work through a calendar of growing seasons.
Jane Livingston, co-founder of the Maine Worker-Owned Rural Co-op, said the Farm Hands project has a concept similar to that of the worker’s co-op in that both seek to preserve local agriculture and address some of the same needs.
“It’s great, because I think it will meet more needs more quickly. People will see that it works, and all we need is a longer list of workers and farmers to get the whole northern part of the state as densely covered as this community,” she said. “It’s perfect. We’re doing both at the same time — the local and the state.”
Livingston said the Orono-based co-op project will help farmers and workers in eight northern counties — Aroostook, Franklin, Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Oxford, Somerset and Washington. Livingston, who is retired, said she originally had planned to open a commercial kitchen but after talking to farmers at the Orono Farmer’s Market last spring discovered that what they really needed was more labor to help harvest.
“A lot of crops just go to waste because organic farmers, the ones we are interested in helping, usually operate on a small scale and can’t afford to hire someone for just a few days during the peak harvest,” she said.
Providing farm help will encourage more farmers, including young people, to start small organic farms, which Livingston said she sees as a key to sustainability and the local food movement.
“The way to support that, according to the farmer, is temporary farm labor, short-term but very reliable and experienced. The idea of organizing a pool of temporary farm workers that would be reliable, experienced and trained and who would work for $10 an hour is pretty daunting but could really help rural Maine survive, thrive and produce food for the state,” she said.
Paula Day, co-owner of Harakiel Farm in Starks, said finding workers can be difficult, and that one of the things she looks forward to with the Farm Hands idea is a system that would categorize people by experience and areas of expertise. She said she now looks both in town and outside of town for workers, including on the Somerset County and state labor listings.
“It hasn’t been that easy. Finding labor for agricultural work— local, in-state labor— is very difficult,” Day said. Not everyone has experience with physical labor, she said, and seasonal jobs can be hard to fill because many people who probably would take a low-paying, physical job are often receiving state welfare or unemployment compensation that would be disrupted by a seasonal job.
Despite these challenges, Murphy said he thinks the number of people interested in agricultural work is growing because of a slow economic recovery and other factors, including the growth of the local food movement.
Both Livingston and Murphy said they are looking for workers of any age. Livingston, 66, said that once the co-op is more firmly established, she plans to work and use the income to supplement her retirement income.
“There’s a lot of farm work that isn’t really back-breaking labor. There’s sorting and washing and bagging. There’s work available for people who have no work, who have less work than they need; and if you can work for 40 hours making $10 an hour, in northern Maine you can live on that,” she said.
Murphy said that by creating two lists — one of farmers and one of workers — the Farm Hands could help fill needs such as the ones described by Day and other farmers around the state. He said they wouldn’t be involved with the specifics of worker contracts.
“It was the thought that we could sort of match them up, like a speed dating service, and then step back after introducing the people,” Murphy said.
Eventually, he said, the group wants to have more information than just people’s names and telephone numbers. The list could include work experience, scheduling or transportation needs that would make the match-ups work better.
There is also an educational component that Murphy said he would like to incorporate, which would include video tutorials, training and transportation to educational opportunities.
On his own farm, a 60-acre farm with vegetables and about 45 cows, Murphy said he uses year-round help. Initially, he said, he relied on the sons and daughters of Boston acquaintances who could help out. However, after he trained them, they usually moved on after two or three years — to college or another job.
Pay for the Farm Hands would be only $7 to $10 per hour, but Murphy said there are other benefits. Last year, he said, he had extra Swiss chard and asparagus and sent them home with his employees.
He said he has developed a sort of father-son relationship with one of his workers.
“I can’t say it would be that way for everybody, but at least for me, I think it goes beyond the cash exchange,” he said.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368