Workers from the Rodriguez family pick strawberries at Maxwell’s Farm fields on Bowery Beach Road in Cape Elizabeth on Thursday morning. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

For centuries, the Maxwell family has been growing fruit and vegetables in Cape Elizabeth. It traces its lineage back to a certain James Maxwell, “husbandman,” who in 1772 paid two pounds, six shillings and eight pence “lawful money” for 25 acres of land.

In the 19th century, Walter Maxwell rowed his crops to shore from Richmond Island to sell them. His descendent, Harvey Maxwell, was dubbed the “Cabbage King of Cape Elizabeth.” Today, Bill Bamford and Lois (Maxwell) Bamford operate the farm with the help of two of their four children, Joel and Joy Bamford, the ninth generation of Maxwells to farm in Cape Elizabeth. These days, the operation is mostly U-pick strawberries.

The farm’s website encapsulates this 250-year family history in about a dozen paragraphs. But as the narrative wraps up the Maxwell genealogy (for now), it takes a detour. It introduces the Rodriguez family.

“For three generations the Rodriguez family have been an important part of the Maxwell’s Farm family,” says the text on the website’s history page. “In the 1960s Ken Maxwell established a relationship with families from the small town of Patillas, Puerto Rico. Since then they have been an intricate part of farm operations, each summer leaving their homes and families in Puerto Rico to come and work with our family here in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Maxwell’s Farm would not be what it is today without their agricultural talents, tenacious work ethic, and their familial labor of love.”

Bill and Lois Bamford took over operations of Maxwell’s Farm from Lois’ father, Ken Maxwell, when he retired. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Lois Bamford can barely remember a time that her late father, Ken Maxwell, farmed without a Rodriguez at his side. He first brought her to visit Puerto Rico when she was still in high school. She and her husband have been back several times since.

“He loved it there. Gracious! I don’t know how many times he and my mom went down. He felt it was really important to build the relationship,” Lois Bamford said. “I use every opportunity without being obnoxious to brag on (the Rodriguez family). We could not farm without them. Too many people can’t find workers, and we are so blessed.”



Ismael Rodriguez, now 84 and the patriarch of an extended family of some 145 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, was the first Rodriguez to work for the Maxwells. He came to the farm around 1970 and worked in the fields for 21 years.

Back home, in the sheer mountains of rural Patillas, Ismael and his wife, Leonor, raised 14 children. At one time or another, all five of his boys worked at Maxwell’s Farm, some of them returning again and again. One, Neris, married a Maine girl, moved to Limington and made a life for himself in fishing. Three of Ismael’s sons — Rogelio, nicknamed “Cano”; Gerardo; and Ismael, named for his father – are here from Puerto Rico this summer. Each of the men – stocky, compact and visibly brothers – has come to Maxwell’s Farm off and on for more than 25 years.

Gerardo Rodriguez clears weeds from a field growing asparagus at Maxwell’s Farm fields on Two Lights Road in Cape Elizabeth. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Over almost 60 years, other assorted Rodriguez nephews, cousins, grandchildren and in-laws have also spent long days and weeks planting, weeding, irrigating, harvesting and readying the berries (and various vegetables) for market alongside the Maxwells and the Bamfords. Asked recently how many Rodriguez family members in total have worked at the farm, this summer’s contingent of eight – who range from 18-year-old recent high school grad Francis to his dad, 59-year-old Ismael (the younger), a carpenter back home – tried to list off names. “Fifty?” one called out. “More!” another amended.

Just two Rodriguez women have ever worked on the farm: Cano’s wife Nilda (whose father also worked for the Maxwells) and his 18-year-old daughter, Esthefany, or “Any,” who is studying nursing and speaks nearly fluent English. She sometimes translates for the others, who understand more than they speak.

Some years ago, Cano was missing his wife and daughter so acutely, he asked Bill Bamford if he could bring them the following summer. It was a delicate negotiation. “I was very hesitant,” Bill remembered. “You are going into new waters here. Just from an employment practice, as a business owner.” If you offer something to one worker, you have to be prepared to give the same to the others, he said.


It worked out. This is Nilda and Any’s seventh summer in Cape Elizabeth, and Any can pick berries as fast as any of the men. In past years, Cano and Nilda’s two boys also worked at Maxwell’s Farm.

Cano and Nilda Rodriguez with their daughter, Any, at their living quarters at Maxwell’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth. Any, who is studying to get a college degree in nursing, is spending her seventh summer working on the farm. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In most of the United States, a restless country, job-hopping is commonplace, and huge, extended families working together is not. But among migrant workers, a lengthy and familial connection is less rare, according to Jorge Acero, the state’s migrant monitor advocate. Entire families of independent migrant workers often travel together, he said.

“Many farms in Maine have workers that have been working for the very same farm,” he continued, “and they’ve grown old there.”

Field work at Maxwell’s Farm has been a job the Rodriguezes can count on for more than five decades and when – in the past, at least – the opportunities to earn a living wage in rural Puerto Rico were scant. “It is much easier now,” Any wrote in an email, “although life is expensive but the salary is better now. 50 years ago there was too much poverty so many people left the country in search of a better salary.”

There’s another factor that has induced the Rodriguez family to return in some configuration or other to the same farm in Maine for more than half a century, said Cano, also a carpenter in Puerto Rico and crew leader in Cape Elizabeth.




Neither the Bamfords nor the Rodriguezes know how Ken Maxwell came to recruit labor from Patillas in the first place, a town in southeastern Puerto Rico that is well off the beaten path. He spoke no Spanish, except, as time passed, for words like lechuga (lettuce), which the farm grew at the time; and cuchillo (knife), which was necessary to harvest the lettuce; and mucho (many), which was handy to indicate the size of the harvest, all of which he spoke with a marked Maine accent. In the early years, the Rodriguezes spoke little to no English. There was “a lot of pointing,” Lois remembered.

Even 73-year-old Pedro Nieves, now a resident of Gorham, can’t say how Maxwell formed ties with Patillas. Nieves came to Maxwell’s Farm in the early days as a 16-year-old with not a word of English himself. Back home, he’d been working in the sugarcane fields earning $4 a day. A year or two after he arrived in Cape Elizabeth, Nieves recruited his lifelong friend Ismael (the elder), initiating, as it turned out, the enduring Rodriguez-Maxwell’s Farm connection.

When Nieves eventually married a Maine girl, Ken Maxwell served as best man at his wedding. Today, Nieves remains an integral part of the farm family, visiting weekly come summertime, bringing the Rodriguezes gifts of home-canned hot peppers or dropping off 50-pound bags of rice, and sometimes translating from English to Spanish and back again if a problem arises. “Best guy ever,” Bill Bamford says of him.

Nieves, who sports a handsome handlebar mustache, is also the chief pig roaster. Each summer for the last seven years, just after the end of the strawberry harvest when members of the Rodriguez family begin to head back to Puerto Rico, he comes to the farm one morning, unloads a substantial pig-roasting contraption and spends the day tending to a spinning slaughtered local pig.

Gerardo Rodriguez, center, and Pedro Nieves of Gorham slice up a roasted pig at the end of the season party at Maxwell’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth in July 2021. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The roast pig, lechon asado in Puerto Rico, is the salty, succulent signature dish at the annual goodbye party the Bamfords hold for their family, staff and neighboring farms. “We want them to know how much we appreciate them,” Lois said about the event. As night falls, plates are heaped with pork, cornbread, casseroles, rice and beans, three-bean salad, blueberry pie and cupcakes, last year baked by three Cape Elizabeth high school girls.


Amid peals of laughter one afternoon this month, as the Rodriguezes sat in a circle in the same outbuilding at the farm that hosted the pig roast last July, Nieves describes the occasions for pig roasts in Puerto Rico. “Over there, they throw a pig roast just for, anything, for finding one minute to another,” he said. If a small child loses a tooth, you roast a pig. “Sometimes it’s 8 o’clock in the morning or 5 o’clock at night,” Pedro said, ” ‘Hey let’s kill the pig.’ ”


If no one remembers how Ken Maxwell came to hire field workers from Patillas, it’s easy to surmise why. “Local people stopped wanting to do that labor,” said Acero, the state’s migrant monitor advocate, a fact that bedevils Maine farms to this day. “It’s very, very difficult to recruit local people to do farm work and to stay with it,” he said.

At the same time, it takes “a lot of handiwork” to grow strawberries, according to David Handley, vegetable and small fruit specialist at University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Labor shortages on farms across the country over the last decade have led to the development of mechanization in strawberry fields. But it’s only the huge commercial operations in Florida and California that can afford the new machines, he said.

Though strawberries in Maine, and on Maxwell’s Farm, are usually planted with a mechanical transplanter, it takes four to five people to run that machine. “You still need a lot of person power there,” Handley said. Weeding and harvesting are done by hand. In addition to their U-pick operations, the Bamfords sell berries, harvested by the Rodriguez crew, to local farm markets.

Over time, the length of a season for the migrant workers at Maxwell’s Farm has contracted, from seven months some 40 years ago – late April through as late as Thanksgiving – to two to four months now; the family arrives and leaves in batches. What the farm grows has changed, too, from wholesale crops like lettuce, cabbage and squash to retail crops like herbs, melons and all manner of vegetables to, today, those luscious, fleeting berries.


This year, the Bamfords are growing peas and string beans, too, in part because, to make it worthwhile for the Rodriguez family to fly from Puerto Rico, “you’ve got to have something else for them to do,” Lois said.

Esthefany Rodriguez, 18, picks strawberries at Maxwell’s Farm fields on Bowery Beach Road in Cape Elizabeth. Esthefany, or Any as she is called, is working her seventh summer in Maine, joining her mother Nilda and father Cano. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

During the short, intense season, the Rodriguezes work six days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m, with an hour for lunch, and half days on Sunday. They earn $15.75 per hour – a rate at the high end of the pay scale for field work in Maine, according to Handley. Cano, the crew leader, earns a little more. The family lives and cooks together in the bare-bones “bunkhouse” that the Bamfords provide, Cano and his wife and daughter in a basement apartment of their own, the other five this year sharing the remaining space. The Bamfords also pay for their plane tickets from Puerto Rico to Maine and back.

The fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory had clear appeal in the 1960s and still does now. Because Puerto Ricans are American citizens, the farm doesn’t have to go through the laborious and expensive process of seeking H-2A visas year after year, which now cost several thousand dollars per application, Acero said. An H-2A visa allows foreigners to live temporarily in the United States to do agricultural work. Handley described the application process as “a legal and paperwork nightmare.”

Among the 2,000 to 2,500 migrant agriculture workers in Maine in recent summers, the state does not track the number from Puerto Rico. But the territory has a “really long history” of sending temporary workers to the continental United States, Acero said. In the 1960s and ’70s, especially, they came in search of better-paying jobs. Nowadays, Acero added, “it’s very difficult to recruit workers from Puerto Rico.”

For strawberries in particular, a high-value crop, “because there is so much handwork involved, you’ve got to have a reliable work force,” Handley said. “Way back when, Ken Maxwell took a gamble – and it’s paid off in spades.

“What’s really unique is that they really cultivated the relationship,” he elaborated. “It wasn’t just rounding up a bunch of workers.”



Lois Bamford knows Maxwell’s Farm with an intimacy born of almost 70 years. She and Bill live in the sprawling blue house on Spurwink Avenue where she grew up and where her father grew up before her. She and her siblings did farm work “as soon as you could walk around,” she said. Her first off-the-farm job was at Kmart in Scarborough. “I thought it was healthy to punch a time clock and work for someone other than your dad.” When Lois became a mom, she put her own children to work, at first readying trays for U-pickers – they come flat and need to be folded. “My children did it for years. My kids were toddlers, they were folding trays,” she laughed.

Bill Bamford started at Maxwell’s Farm one summer when he was in college; he and Lois were dating one another at the now-closed Glencove Bible College in Rockland, where he was studying to become a minister and she was studying early childhood education. They married in 1977, and he wrestled mightily about whether to go into the ministry. Ultimately, he joined his father-in-law on the farm. When Ken Maxwell retired, Lois and Bill took over its operations. Today, they grow 10 to 15 acres of strawberries each summer, some on rented fields scattered around Cape Elizabeth. (Other Maxwell siblings farmed other parts of the family holdings.)

The three Rodriguez brothers have their own deep-rooted familiarity with Maxwell’s Farm. A few days after Cano, Gerardo and Ismael (the younger) arrived in late May (Bill drove to Logan airport in Boston to pick them up, as usual), they were in a new field off Route 77 planting berries under cool, overcast skies. The bare-root plants, “40,000 little babies,” Bill described them, were delivered on a FedEx truck in crates a week earlier, which Bill had unloaded into a cooler.

Cano Rodriguez is reflected in a truck’s side mirror while talking to Bill Bamford before heading out to work Maxwell’s Farm’s fields following lunch on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bill was very slowly driving a tractor up and down the furrowed field, his daughter Joy seated among the brothers on a mechanical transplanter behind it. The four were sucking on lollipops and steadily feeding individual bare-root plants into rotating rubber pockets that inserted them into the ground.

Nobody was saying much, and it was still pretty quiet a few hours later, when Joel Bamford arrived with irrigation pipes, and he and his dad and the Rodriguez brothers lay them by the newly planted berries, a stop-gap until the drip irrigation could be readied. Everybody did similar funny, little hops to avoid stepping on the new plants, and everybody knew where to go and what to do. It looked like a well-choreographed dance.


“I don’t have to explain anything to these guys,” Bill had said earlier. “I just say, ‘Go do this,’ and they’re like, ‘OK.’ ” I don’t have to go out and show them.”

Cano, the crew leader, always notices when the berries need to be harvested, when the peas are getting too big, when the weeds are encroaching, Lois said. Whatever it is, he sees it. “It’s another pair of eyes,” she said. Bill attributed Maxwell Farm’s neat, tidy U-pick berry fields to the diligence of the Rodriguez family.

In a separate conversation, Gerardo tried to describe what it’s like to work with Bill Bamford. “You know? Together,” Gerardo said. He put his hands together and interlaced his fingers to underline his point. “Even boss work.”


You never know how things in Puerto Rico are going to affect the fields in Cape Elizabeth. The Rodriguezes’ stint in Maine always coincides with annual hurricane season. They track the weather back home closely. In 1998, they anxiously watched from Maine as Hurricane Georges approached. It was September, and fields were still full of squash that needed to be harvested. “It was enough work for a week,” Gerardo remembers, “but we did it in one day.” Then Bill ferried the men to the airport, and they beat the hurricane home.

Upstairs at the bunkhouse, Esthefany Rodriguez and her father, Cano, hold up a flag of Puerto Rico that has been signed by Puerto Rican workers each summer at Maxwell’s Farm for the last 20 or so years. The flag, as well as the flag of Patillas, normally hang on the wall in the bunkhouse living room, perhaps bringing home a little closer each summer.

Cano didn’t know it until his plane landed, but his new infant son was in the hospital with a high fever. The boy recovered. Just 24 years later, the roughly 1,800 miles between Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and Patillas, Puerto Rico, have diminished. Now when Edgardo Nieves, a Rodriguez nephew (and cousin to Pedro Nieves) who works on cars in Puerto Rico, misses his wife and 6-month-old son, he can FaceTime with them. Likewise for his brother Jaime Nieves, who left a 2-year-old daughter at home this summer to work at Maxwell’s Farm.


“When we started, you didn’t even have phones,” Pedro Nieves said. “No email. You had to write to people. (FaceTime) makes it easier and more together. You can see the person every day. You leave Puerto Rico, and two hours later you call and say, ‘I’m ready.’ Before they had to wait for you five days before they get the letter saying, ‘We made it.’ ”

This summer, the family has also been calling home regularly to check on patriarch Ismael Rodriguez, the man who started it all. The very week the Rodriguez brothers had planned to arrive, he had a stroke. They delayed their trip by a week. Ismael (the elder) is home again now, but ailing. Their faces cloud with worry when they speak about him.


When Lois was young, many of the migrant workers who came to the farm had dropped out of school after the sixth grade to go to work. Nowadays, the younger Rodriguezes at Maxwell’s Farm have all completed high school. Any is studying for her bachelor of science degree in nursing, and her cousins work in Puerto Rico as bakers, barbers, electricians, auto mechanics, accountants and more, a reflection of rising education levels over the last 50 years in Puerto Rico.

Bill Bamford understands that, at this point, the farm probably needs the Rodriguezes more than the Rodriguezes need the farm.

But in a separate conversation a few days earlier, members of the Rodriguez family had talked about what their future in Cape Elizabeth might hold. Cano said he hopes to return to work at Maxwell’s Farm in future summers. The others nodded. “But it’s not in our hands,” Cano said. “It’s in Bill’s and Lois’ hands.”

Joel Bamford collects strawberries as Cano Rodriguez, left, picks at Maxwell’s Farm fields. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

If you take the farm’s website at its word, they have nothing to worry about. But the Rodriguezes, it turned out, had never seen the website, and had no idea it names them as an integral part of the farm. When they were shown the website’s history write-up on a smartphone, they passed the phone from brother to nephew to brother to son to wife, and read it wonderingly, with Any translating parts of it. The room grew quiet. Then Cano spoke in Spanish, quietly, with great intensity and at length.

“What we read on the website … the feeling I would say was …,” he started haltingly. “It’s the same for us as it is for (the Bamfords). Right now, we don’t need it as much. But many of us made a home from (what we earned) here. Yes, many of us made a home. And Any, she bought a car. At that time it was necessary. They gave us an opportunity here. Now things are better and more stable (in Puerto Rico), but we continue to come here because of our gratitude. They see us the same way we see them.”

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