Omar Worrell unloads apples at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner in September. Worrell says this is his ninth season coming to the US on an H-2A visa. Credit: Ari Snider / Maine Public

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Jake Pierson is one of the owners of the family-owned Pierson Nurseries Inc., Maine’s largest wholesale nursery grower.

The year 2020 was extremely challenging here at Pierson Nurseries in Dayton. With everyone making their homes and yards nicer because they were stuck there, we were inundated with a demand for plants like never before. Thank goodness we had our six guest workers from Jamaica or we’d never have been able to keep up. And as someone who’s in touch with many other stretched-thin growers and farmers around the state and the nation, I know I speak for them as well.

That’s why I’m urging U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King of Maine to get behind efforts to pass a Senate version of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which has already passed the House twice with bipartisan support. It’s as important for plant growers like me as it is for farmers in Maine and nationwide who grow our fruits and vegetables.

And it’s especially important for those who raise the animals that give us meat and dairy products, because they need help 365 days a year, not just seasonally, and the act would enable them to access a non-seasonal workforce — something the current guest worker program does not. To be eligible, workers must pass background checks, have a record free of criminal convictions and pay an application fee.

Reform is needed because the current H-2A visa program is filled with inefficiencies, including enormous amounts of paperwork, long wait times and uncertainty for employers and workers. That’s driving food inflation: Grocery prices are up 10 percent over last year, driving more Mainers to food banks because they can’t fully afford to feed their families.  

That’s not good — but the act would mitigate that. A recent study by Texas A&M International University showed that more migrant and H-2A guest workers are associated with lower inflation and lower food prices, including for milk, eggs, meat, fruits and vegetables, while at the same time improving wages for our nation’s highly skilled agricultural workforce. As for Maine farmers, a CATO study showed that passage of the act would save us $29 million a year.

And this isn’t just about fixing inflation — it’s about ensuring national security. Next year, the U.S. will become a net importer of food, according to an analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means we will be importing more food than we export — and that is not good. A nation that can’t feed itself is not a secure nation.

It’s as simple as this: If we farmers are going to continue providing Mainers and Americans the food they need — not to mention the plants they love — we need a stable, secure, reliable, and legal workforce. I urge Collins and King to support the efforts of U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, to get this crucial piece of legislation over the finish before this Congress ends. Without it, our farmers, families and security will all continue to suffer.