“Thank you” is a phrase that reminds me of mothering littles.

When I gave my kid a cookie, a muffin, or a pancake, if expressed appreciation was not immediately forthcoming, a gentle nudge for politeness was. “Honey, what do you say when someone hands you something to eat?” In my experience, prodding my kids for a “Thank you Mommy!” at home meant they mostly remembered their manners when they were out.

We said grace most nights at the dinner table. But in the rotation of words we used to express our gratefulness for the food on our plates, even in the prayers where we thanked the Lord for the sun, and the rain and the apple seed, taught to us by farmers’ kids, we never expressly said we were thankful for the farmer, or those who labored for him or her in the fields.

Raw asparagus. Farmers are struggling to find enough farmhands to pick crops like this one. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Have you ever picked a pound of asparagus?  That would be roughly a dozen of the thick-stemmed variety and 24 to 30 of the skinny ones. I learned how to pick asparagus only recently, by watching a YouTube video posted last month by an Oregon asparagus farmer. Shay Myers of Owyee Produce in Nyssa created the Farming 101-style short because, though he offered to pay $16 per hour, he could not get the necessary help to pick his 35 acres of asparagus. Frustrated by the immigration policy at the Mexican border and by most Americans being unwilling to work as field hands, Myers used the video to recruit people to come and pick what they wanted rather than let 35,000 pounds of asparagus go to waste in the field.

The 2.4 million viewers of the two-minute clip were instructed to avoid stepping where the underground crowns of roots sit, to use a knife to slice off stalks just below the soil’s surface, and to snap off the woody ends of the stalks, leaving them to decompose in the field. You had to watch until the end to know that you had to leave your name in the comments to qualify as a recruited picker. Six thousand people showed up to pick Shay’s asparagus. He subsequently noted that while he was pleased to avoid a food waste disaster, he was still frustrated by the fact that most Americans – except for farm families — will only pick vegetables if the picking is part of a fun family day out.

According to the USDA research service, hired farm workers (75 percent of whom are typically foreign born) make up less than one percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but play an essential role in labor-intensive farming tasks. Farm wages have risen over time for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers. In 1990, the average wage for nonsupervisory farmworkers – $9.80/hour in 2019 dollars as adjusted for inflation – was about half the $19.40 wage of private-sector nonsupervisory workers in the nonfarm economy. By 2019, the $13.99 farm wage was 60 percent of the $23.51 nonfarm wage. These statistics are consistent with reports from national growers that the supply of migrant workers has decreased, thereby forcing them to raise wages to attract workers from elsewhere.

The state of Maine doesn’t formally track wages paid to farm workers, said Department of Agriculture spokesperson Jim Britt. On the state’s employment site, Maine JobLink, I found 50 listings for farm labor jobs offering anywhere between $12.50/hour to $15.50/hour to work between 40 and 63 hours per week between April and November. Another 18 farm apprenticeships were offered on the Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener Association’s website. “Maine farms face challenges annually in finding enough people to work on the farms. The fact that there are numerous positions for agricultural jobs currently open is consistent with this perennial problem,” Britt said.

As is consistent with federal policy, Maine farms are not required to pay hired hands time and a half pay for overtime. A bill before the Maine legislature’s committee on labor and housing, LD 1022, would require that overtime pay increase to make wages for farm work more in line with other labor jobs, such as construction. Those who argue against the measure say farming in Maine is highly variable (41% of farms have farms sales of less than $2,500/year while only 9% of farms have sales of $100,000/year or more) and full of challenges, including ever-changing weather patterns, short growing seasons, high production costs, and the public’s expectation for low food prices, which eat into already razor-thin profit margins. A similar bill failed to pass during the legislature’s last session.

California, Minnesota, Hawaii and New York have approached this same issue by phasing in higher agricultural overtime with some exclusions in place based on farm size. Maine may be able to learn from those states on how to attract more laborers to farm work, but in the meantime, buy as much locally produced food as you can to keep Maine’s food system afloat.

And don’t forget to say “Thank you” to the people handing it over to you.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Roasted Asparagus, Trumpet Mushrooms and Soft-Boiled Duck Eggs with Parsley Vinaigrette  Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Roasted Asparagus, Trumpet Mushrooms and Soft-Boiled Duck Eggs with Parsley Vinaigrette

This meal can work for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I’ve given portions for two, but you can easily scale it up to feed more. I don’t spell out how to soft boil an egg here, as I believe that the best way to do that lies in how a cook was taught. The hard cheese pictured here is Balfour Farms aged gouda.

Serves 2

1/2-pound asparagus spears, trimmed
4 trumpet mushrooms, slices 1/4-inch thick
Olive oil
Kosher salt
Aleppo pepper
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar|
1 teaspoon coarse mustard
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 garlic clove, minced
1 ounce shaved hard cheese
2 duck eggs, soft-boiled
Crusty bread, for serving

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Arrange the asparagus and mushrooms on a baking sheet.  Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper. Toss to combine and then spread the vegetables out in a single layer. Roast them until the mushrooms are golden brown on 1 side, 7-10 minutes.

To make vinaigrette, whisk together 2 tablespoons olive oil, vinegar, mustard and honey in a small bowl. Stir in the parsley and garlic.

Divide the roasted vegetables between 2 plates, drizzle with the vinaigrette and sprinkle half the cheese over the top of each serving. Add an egg to each plate and serve with crusty bread.


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