Smith’s Farm places emphasis on worker safety, meeting retail commitments

stagAs a multigenerational grower, Smith’s Farm is accustomed to facing challenges that crop up during the year, from weather to labor to water.

But this year’s coronavirus outbreak presented a new wrinkle to the already challenging business of farming.

“We typically make final decisions on our summer Maine broccoli plantings in February or March, and that is when COVID emerged, so it was a bit tricky,” said Tara Smith Vighetti, a partner and Director of Sales for Smith’s. “Immediately, we were worried about whether we would have the labor force available to harvest and fulfill our contracts with retailers.”

Smith Vighetti said the family felt obliged to meet the expectations of customers and employees alike, so Smith’s Farm planted its typical acreage and hoped that it would be able to procure the necessary labor through the H2A program, as it does every year.

“Our first workers arrived in northern Maine in early May, and we immediately instituted a two-week quarantine as a precautionary measure,” said Smith Vighetti. “Our community in Maine for summer production is very small, so we wanted to respect that by being extra cautious and a good neighbor.”

She said the company had planned to construct housing for an additional 40 workers this season, and when COVID became an issue, they moved forward with the plan anyway despite the uncertainty, which was fortuitous since it provided for extra space for workers to socially distance and the ability to isolate new workers who arrive during the season.

“We really went to great extremes to ensure the health and safety of our workers as well as the community at large,” she said. “Among the other precautions we have taken are additional cleaning and sanitation protocols, and assigned seating on buses for workers. It helps us to ensure a steady supply of labor, and it puts the workers at ease, too.”

Smith Vighetti said that nearly 100 percent of the seasonal work force is made up of returning workers, which made it easier to obtain approvals for their entry to the United States. “We have a reputation of mutual respect with our workers and it’s definitely a benefit that they want to come back to us each year. It helped expedite the process this year.”

Now that production is well under way, Smith Vighetti said things have gone smoothly so far, with a few bumps in the road due to hot, dry weather.

“We are lucky here in Maine, because we have access to a number of pristine water sources,” she said, “but we have had some super hot and dry periods so water has been a bit of an issue. When you have rain, everything runs more smoothly. But we’re working hard to keep on top of the irrigation, and the volume and quality are so far steady.”

Regarding volume, Smith Vighetti said that while it should be a typical year in that regard, there is less acreage this year for the open market. “We just felt like it was more important this year to make sure we take care of our customers, so most of our acreage is spoken for and there is less available for the open market. We have very loyal and dedicated customers largely concentrated in retail, and that was our priority this year.”

She said there is more demand this year for wrapped product, which is understandable given the pandemic.

“We had a few clients switch from naked to wrapped product, and we’ll be prepared if demand for wrapped increases even more,” she said. “We will always work with our customers to meet their needs and specifications.”

Photo: The leadership team at Smith’s Farm includes Zach Smith, Tara Smith Vighetti and Emily Smith.

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