WATAUGA COUNTY — Farmworkers from all over the High Country lined up at Watauga County Agriculture Extension for their COVID-19 booster shot on Nov. 4.
High Country Community Health partnered with the cooperative extension to bring a vaccine clinic to those who work in the area’s booming Christmas tree industry, from 8 a.m. to noon.
County extension director Jim Hamilton said the clinic was prepared to vaccinate at least 103 farmworkers with the Johnson & Johnson booster shot. Interpreters from High Country Community Health were there to walk Spanish-speaking farmworkers through the paperwork prior to receiving the vaccine.
According to AppHealthCare’s COVID-19 data dashboard, Hispanics and Latin Americans are one of the highest vaccinated groups in the county.
High Country Christmas tree farms generate more than $5 million dollars for the industry through choose and cut trees alone, Hamilton said. Jeff and Cecilia Brown, owners of C&J Christmas Trees in Boone, arrived at the clinic with a crew of farmworkers. The family-owned farm sold $70,000 worth of Christmas trees last season, Jeff Brown said.
Harvesting for this year’s trees began at the start of November, according to Sergio Paniagua. Paniagua has worked with Hawk Mountain Tree Farm and Garden Center in Banner Elk for 21 years.
“The last few years there have not been as many trees as there used to be, so it’s not been as demanding as it was,” Paniagua said. “It’s getting better every year.”
Paniagua said while the job is demanding, with shifts that can span nine to 14 hours, it reminds him of his hometown in Mexico.
After Paniagua and employees of Hawk Mountain Tree Farm have received the vaccine, he said, they will return to their “camp” in Mountain City to gather the equipment needed for Christmas tree cutting.
Living in close quarters was a concern for multiple farmworkers receiving their vaccines. Alejandro Romo, an employee at Stone Mountain Farms, said he was getting the vaccine out of an abundance of caution. He lives with many other people who work closely together in the pines. Romo said that he was concerned about the spread of COVID-19 and that it seemed like receiving the vaccine was the best thing to do.
He has worked with Stone Mountain Farms and has been living in the area for about 10 years, and while the job is challenging and taxing, he said he loves the climate of North Carolina and how distinct each of the four seasons are in the mountains.
Some of the farmworkers were more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others. The eldest worker at Hawk Mountain Tree Farm and Garden Center, Aureliano Espino Chavez, is 72-years-old. An employee of about two decades, Chavez works year-round, planting, fertilizing, treating and tending to the trees leading up to harvest season. Most of the farmworkers who attended the vaccine clinic live in the area, living among different areas of Avery County such as Foscoe, Newland and more.
“There are many of us who are worried about the virus,” Chavez said.
The Nov. 4 vaccine clinic was just one of HCCH’s many efforts to get vaccines to vulnerable populations in the area, according to Alice Salthouse CEO at HCCH.