August 31, 2013

Starks commission seeks database to connect farmers, laborers

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

STARKS — For the last six years, Kyle Costigan has worked summers at Sweet Land Farm, where he cares for crops and helps harvest hay.

click image to enlarge

Farmer Jay Robinson stands in one of his vegetable fields in Starks. Robinson is behind an effort to create a labor pool to employ local workers at his farm.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

Jay Robinson works in one of his vegetable fields in Starks recently.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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