Alaena Robbins (She/Her)

Alaena has been farming on farms not her own for 7 years. She currently works in a management position at a cut-flower farm in Maine and is going into her 8th season there. She also helps out at her partner’s small veggie operation. 

My main role is managing greenhouse in the early part of the season: crop planning, ordering, hiring, managing harvest and wholesale accounts and creating the cut list…stuff like that.

This will be my 8th season here; I moved from New York and started as an apprentice in 2014.

The farm is on land trust land. The owners, they have been there for 14-15 years. The property is about 100 acres, and we grow on about 4ish acres, annuals and perennials and high tunnels. They also lease fields to 3 other farmers, as well. 

I don’t have an official job title.

If I did, it would probably be something like: harvest and greenhouse manager and floral designer. 

The farm is on land trust land. The owners, they have been there for 14-15 years. The property is about 100 acres, and we grow on about 4ish acres, annuals and perennials and high tunnels. They also lease fields to 3 other farmers, as well. 

I worked 3 years before moving up into a management role. When I was an apprentice, it was me and two workers from Puerto Rico. I started slowly taking over the harvest and greenhouse and my role has become more and more involved each year. 

There is another equal to me – she manages the design side of things with the flowers.  

We are both on salaries and year round. 

There is going to be another person this year who is also in a management position, more on the field side of things. And a handful of absolutely amazing returning folks.

Alaena & the farm owner on a farm inspiration trip to California

I really started getting into farming through an interest in environmental issues starting in high school. In college I came across the Slow Food group. It opened my eyes to food justice issues and how that all relates to climate change. After college I interned at Slow Food USA and worked at another food and gardening non-profit in New York City.

I felt like something was sort of missing and wanted to actually learn about farming and get my hands in the dirt and try it.

I never thought that I would continue doing it, but I’m still here. 

A piece of me has always yearned to live this sort of lifestyle. I played “colonial girl” dress-up and pretended I lived in the 1700s for way too long as a kid. That’s a piece of me that was going unaddressed when I was living in the city and it definitely clicked when I moved out here.

The farm I’m working at is successful and it’s well established…the community knows it well.

They have provided a really reliable income for me as far as farming goes. It’s really great.

It just felt like: why would I try and start something on my own that would be similar or close to the same in a similar geographical region? I’d rather try to work together on a farm that already exists and hopefully have the autonomy to make decisions and push it in a direction that I want to see it going.

There are a lot of farms in Maine, especially with flower farming, it continues to be blowing up all over the county. 

I never felt like I needed that ownership side of things. 

They are well set up, really good soil, tons of resources. 

The owners provided a work environment that felt safe to stay there. There are always little moments where you think of how you would do things differently, but overall it feels like I have a say in what’s happening and can voice my opinion if I feel like there is something that majorly needs to be changed.

The more I learn about running a business and the stress and burden financially, liabilities –  there is so much of the behind the scene stuff that a lot of farmworkers don’t realize. As much as I’m invested in the success of the farm, it’s nice to not worry about it all. 

My partner Dylan also farms. He, his brother and sister-in-law have a small veggie farm where we live.

I’m involved in it to a degree, but not in the day to day goings on. I’m here and I’m a part of it, but more on the family side of things. There was a time when I thought I would be much more involved in that and move to being an owner, but I just found that they were doing things differently than I thought would work for me and it can’t financially support 4 adults. They are totally making it work but I found I was much happier helping out more like an employee and let go of trying to control things.-

I feel like for the most part, I’m definitely working on a dream farm.

In the Not Our Farm project, this is the best case scenario: our farm could be a good example of how great things can be. 

Being put on salary was a big huge change. Not having to stress about finding winter work as much has been really great, and not having to track every second of when you’re working has been a huge relief. With farming, you’re thinking about it all the time, responding to texts, researching, and not having to track all those hours has been life changing. 

Being given agency to sort of decide how you want to lead a crew, organize your days and also being pulled in for larger decision making makes people feel really powerful and good about being somewhere. The diversity of work has been a really fun thing about my job – being able to be in the field and working hard and being in the design shop and being in beautiful places to set up weddings. The opportunity to learn that skill – floral design wasn’t something I knew before. There exists an opportunity to learn every facet of the farm business, if you are interested. 

Continuing education opportunities are really valuable, too, and having that sort of thing paid for. 

Paid time off has been really amazing, also…especially in the winter. Feeling okay about taking a moment to rest and know that you’re being supported in that. 

The farm owners’ goal is that they really want to be able to pass the farm on. One of the farm owners, she just became a state senator this year. They are enjoying being able to explore other interests and since it’s on land trust land, there’s an idea of letting the business continue there after they stop farming. There have been talks in the past about joint ownership or managers getting a share in the business, but I’m not sure where that is at right now.

I really do believe that the type of relationship that I have with the farm where I work is something that a lot of farmers want to create, but maybe don’t necessarily know how.

You hear all the time at conferences how badly people want to have farm workers return to the farm, or that they want to have managers that they trust. They want to foster this type of environment.

There needs to be more ways to support farms in general to make this sort of livelihood possible for farm workers and more training for farmers – how to make a safe and equitable and financially stable workplace for people.

When we think about apprenticeships and the lowest level education-focused positions, they are often not making a living wage and I think a lot of farmers kind of went through that themselves and also aren’t making a living wage so they think it’s appropriate to have employees in the same situation. 

Here in Maine, I think there are only like 15 farms left that are running them off of apprenticeship programs, so hopefully that is changing.

For me personally, I feel most challenged with the public side of things. There are definitely people in the farming community that somewhat know how involved I am in the farm and decision making and the work, but the general brand and what is seen on social media with the overall larger farming community in Maine… I don’t necessarily feel seen.

It doesn’t generally bother me all the time, but sometimes you’ll hear one of the farm owners answering a question at a conference, and you wonder why no one ever asks you.

They use ‘I’ when you know it’s YOU or other people doing the work on the farm. 

I also recognize that it’s probably hard – the farm owners have done all the work in the past. I could see how it could be hard to let that recognition go, when you’ve worked really hard to build a successful farm business. And I am sure I do the same thing sometimes with our other employees.

Something that is definitely a prominent fear of mine at the back of my mind is the lack of control over the ultimate decision of whether or not I have a job. Of course we all live somewhat with this uncertainty… and perhaps farm owners feel just as unstable when it comes to whether or not they will make enough money to live on. I have dedicated 7 years of my life to this farm and am building my future around it, but at the end of the day,  I could be let go without any say, in which case I would be stranded with a mortgage in rural Maine with minimal work opportunities available to me. 

There are a lot of programs and support for farm owners, through government and nonprofits, that aren’t really accessible to farm workers or farm managers. 

In Covid times, there was a lot of financial support, some of it trickled down in terms of keeping jobs, but overall it wasn’t geared toward farm workers. 

The National Young Farmers’ grants for supporting farm owners for self care or child support, things like that…

Access to FSA loans: my partner and I are building a house, we could have had access to a low interest rate if we were farm owners

I also think there is a gap between when you’re an apprentice and when you’re a farm owner. There is a lot of emphasis on educating and free access to programming for apprentices and there are sort of journey person programs for new farm owners, but there isn’t much out there for farm workers. The interest exists for farm workers (for further education), but there is a not knowing of where to go with that interest.

I love it. I really love it. Being outside all summer is really special. Working hard, and with flowers in particular, there is something new every year. They are always surprising you, and a little bit different each year. They just bring so much joy to people in a way that is different with produce. 

It’s not as righteous a feeling as growing food, but there’s a lot of value in them…especially now with people looking for light in their lives. 

The diversity of work, being outside, being physical and the lifestyle that it allows. While we work tons of hours in the season, there is also a lot of flexibility if you have a doctors appointment or need a day off, it’s almost always possible. I don’t have a fear around figuring it out for the most. 

It’s the combination of the lifestyle and the work itself that brings me back.