Clusters of COVID-19 cases among workers at two Hancock County blueberry processors are worsening Maine’s annual problem of filling seasonal agricultural jobs.

In the weeks leading up to wild blueberry season in Maine, growers and harvesters Down East prepared for the possibility that some seasonal workers, especially those traveling in from other states, might be sidelined. Sure enough, just as the season has begun, two outbreaks were documented last week by state health officials – nine cases among employees at Hancock Foods in Ellsworth and three cases at Merrill Blueberry Farms, in the town of Hancock.

But industry representatives and state officials are confident those outbreaks were contained quickly because none of the affected individuals had begun work yet.

“One advantage we’ve had during the pandemic over other sectors of the agricultural economy is time,” said Eric Venturini, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine. “Since March, the industry has been preparing for this. That’s how we were able to catch these cases as soon as they arrived.”

Still, the cases and subsequent isolation of workers underscores another problem – there might not be enough people who are willing to harvest the crops, which could affect not only blueberry season, but the potato, broccoli and apple harvesting seasons later in the year.

“It’s hard to fill agricultural jobs period, no matter the year and no matter the crop,” said Nancy McBrady, director of Maine’s Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources. “We live in a time when agricultural jobs are not as attractive even though they are good jobs. So, we don’t have a local labor force that is able to fill the need. There were concerns already, and the COVID-19 pandemic really does exacerbate the problem.”

This spring, the state launched a campaign called FarmingForME to bring awareness to the shortage of agricultural labor. With tens of thousands of Mainers unemployed because of the pandemic, the hope was that many might find temporary work in the fields. But that hasn’t necessarily happened.

“I think there are a lot of things working together to make this a challenging season,” Venturini said. “But there is a serious immediate need for local labor to help harvest and get this crop into the freezer.”

No one from Hancock Foods, which is owned by Allen’s Blueberry Freezer, or from Merrill Blueberry Farms returned messages left Thursday and Friday.

Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world. Final figures for 2019 have not been released, but the state’s 2018 harvest was valued at $23.2 million despite being the smallest in more than 12 years. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press file

Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world and the harvest season traditionally runs through the month of August. Final figures for last year have not been released, but the 2018 wild blueberry harvest – the smallest in more than a dozen years – still generated $23.2 million worth of product. Maine blueberry farmers harvested 50.3 million pounds in 2018, although the price for the smaller crop nearly doubled from 2017. The state produced more than 100 million pounds of wild blueberries a year between 2014 and 2016. That production surge created a glut in the market as Maine contended with competition from Canadian growers and the cultivated-blueberry industry.

For many years, migrant workers from other states and other countries have made up a large percentage of harvesters and processors and many employees live on site in dorm-style housing set up by various businesses.

Agricultural workers, much like employees of food processing facilities, have been declared essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, they are not subject to the state’s 14-day quarantine or proof of a negative test that’s required of visitors to Maine from most other states. However, because many workers are coming from other states – including some from documented COVID-19 hot spots like Florida – the state and the industry have pushed to ensure that all workers are tested before they begin work.

In the case of Hancock Foods, the affected workers all came to Maine by chartered bus from New Jersey, Venturini said. They were screened for symptoms before boarding and then tested as soon as they arrived in Maine. Once tests came back positive, every worker on the bus (about 40 people) was asked to isolate.

“Before they ever set foot in a field or factory, they were all put in quarantine,” Venturini said.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that the new outbreaks were a sign that the state’s safety protocols are working to catch cases before they can spread.

“It’s important to note that the results I’ve mentioned from Tuesday as well as today are the results of proactive testing, not reactive testing,” he said Thursday.

Lisa Tapert, CEO of Maine Mobile Health Program, the primary health care provider for migrant and seasonal farm workers, said a lot of work went into creating guidelines to keep workers safe.

“It’s important for people to know that we have been doing everything we can since the start to help keep workers who come into Maine to support the local economy and the surrounding communities safe,” she said.

Part of the framework was recommending testing for all workers who come into Maine or, alternatively, asking them to quarantine for two weeks. Those are the same guidelines given to all visitors to Maine from all but a handful of exempt states but, because agricultural workers are considered essential, there is no mandate.

“It’s recommended, but growers have taken it very seriously,” Tapert said, adding that she’s seen a mix of businesses asking migrant workers to quarantine for two weeks and testing all workers upon arrival.

Tapert said early on there were questions about testing capacity, but so far her organization has had access to both rapid response testing and traditional swab testing that can be processed at the state lab within 24-48 hours.

When workers test positive or have come into contact with someone who tested positive, they are asked to quarantine and they might need services during that time. Tapert said it’s “too early to tell if the resources are adequate,” but growers are all providing sick pay to individuals and agencies like MaineHousing have been assisting with safe living environments.

McBrady, with the agriculture bureau, said despite the cluster of positive cases associated with Hancock Foods and Merrill Blueberry Farms, the state put a lot of effort into ensuring the safety of workers and others and is pleased with the results thus far.

“Migrant workers are a critical part of the farm economy,” she said.

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