Nicoy Simpson works at Pierson Nurseries on Thursday. Simpson is from Jamaica and has been coming to work at the nursery since 2020. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

DAYTON — Maine farmers are joining a push for national immigration reform that they say could help ease labor shortages, strengthen businesses and lower food prices.

A shortage of skilled labor is stifling growth and hurting operations, to the extent farmers have trouble planting and harvesting crops and caring for livestock, they say.

“We make decisions every day about what we will harvest and what we will leave,” said Penny Jordan, owner of Jordan’s Farm, a vegetable grower in Cape Elizabeth. For the last three years, Jordan has had three or four full-time field hands trying to do work that ordinarily takes six or seven people to do, she said.

A bill pending in the U.S. Senate could help relieve labor pressures that farmers in Maine and elsewhere are facing. Last year, the House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented agricultural workers, reform a widely-used seasonal farmworker visa program and hold employers accountable for using documented labor.

Nicoy Simpson, right, and Arthur Morgan work at Pierson Nurseries on Thursday. Both men are from Jamaica and have been coming to work at the nursery since 2020. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Jordan and other farmers spoke about the need for the reforms during a media event at Pierson Nurseries in Dayton on Thursday.

Supporters of that measure are eagerly awaiting a Senate version being negotiated by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mike Bennet, D-Colorado. Approving the bill this year could ease farmers’ labor challenges and ease soaring food costs, they said.


An overhaul of U.S. immigration laws has been needed for decades, but the pressures facing agriculture are multiplying during a tight labor market nationwide, said Jim O’Neill, director of outreach at the American Business Immigration Coalition, a national group that lobbies for immigration changes on behalf of private industry.

“This is an issue that is not new but has been more desperate in recent months and is really at a tipping point,” O’Neill said.

Jake Pierson at his family business, Pierson Nurseries, on Thursday. The company employs six people who travel up from Jamaica to work from March through November. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A recent study by Texas A&M University requested by the coalition found the economy does better when the workforce includes more immigrants. More migrant and seasonal guest workers are linked to lower inflation, higher average wages and lower unemployment, researchers determined. Denied petitions for U.S. citizenship, on the other hand, are associated with higher consumer prices and inflation, they found.

Under the House reform bill, undocumented farmworkers who have worked in the U.S. for at least two years could apply for legal status and eventually petition for citizenship. That measure alone could affect more than 2 million undocumented agriculture workers and provide labor stability for the industry, according to Farmworker Justice, an advocacy nonprofit.

“We can no longer deny that undocumented workers are the backbone of our agricultural workforce,” Jordan said.

The federal bill would also change the H-2A visa program, a widely used but often criticized seasonal worker authorization.


Nicoy Simpson works at Pierson Nurseries on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Under the proposed changes in the House bill, the H-2A program would be easier to use, allow online filing, set aside 20,000 visas annually for year-round workers and allow visa holders to work for different agricultural employers.

If the first two provisions are enacted, it would trigger a requirement that employers verify their workforce is authorized to work in the U.S., O’Neill said.

Jake Pierson, owner of Pierson Nurseries, said he turned to employing foreign guest workers in 2020 because it became too challenging to find enough people locally. Even though 2020 was a tough year generally, he found the H-2A program overly bureaucratic, inflexible and difficult to work with, Pierson said.

“We need stable, secure, reliable workers,” Pierson said. “The H-2A program does not fulfill that mission.”

Jake Pierson at his family business, Pierson Nurseries, on Thursday. The company employs six people who travel up from Jamaica to work from March through November. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Last year, almost 1,200 H-2A visas were approved for worksites in Maine, according to federal data. Interest in the program has soared in recent years. In 2012, 85,248 positions were authorized nationally, and by 2022 the number rose to 317,619, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The future of the Senate bill is uncertain. It would need 60 votes to pass, a threshold that has been insurmountable for other legislation in a Senate divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Last month, National Public Radio reported that bill negotiations were held up over whether H-2A workers would be allowed to sue employers for labor law violations.


In a written statement, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said offering undocumented workers legal status and improving H-2A visas are worthwhile goals, but he would need to evaluate the Senate version before lending his support.

“These are both good, important ideas, but must be properly executed to ensure we’re supporting our farms the best we can and not stifling local labor rates,” King said.

Arthur Morgan carries plants while working at Pierson Nurseries on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A spokesperson for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement that getting immigrants into the workforce is one way to address severe workforce shortages, and earlier this year she introduced legislation that would allow political asylum-seekers to seek work permits within a month of seeking asylum.

The senator “will carefully review” the farm workforce bill should it come before the full Senate, her spokesperson said.

Passage of the bill focusing on farm workers could pave the way for broader immigration reform, supporters say. Keeping a narrow focus on the agriculture industry makes it easier to show how businesses, workers and consumers would benefit with better immigration policies, they argue.

Juana Rodriguez Vazquez, executive director of Mano en Mano, an immigrant advocacy and support group in Milbridge, said her family came to Maine as seasonal laborers 20 years ago. They put down roots and started several small businesses.

Maine and the nation need more immigrants, and reforming the agriculture industry could help redress the indignity, insecurity and abuse experienced by undocumented workers for decades, she said.

“Our state and this country could not function without us,” Vazquez said.

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