Migrant Labor Bears The Heavy Weight Of WNC's Christmas Tree Farms

Dec 18, 2018

 

Harvesting Christmas trees is a physically demanding job -- chopping and hauling pines that can weigh as much as 200 pounds.

But for migrant workers who come to North Carolina for the annual tree harvest, the strain is often an emotional one. That’s the finding of a nonprofit based in Cullowhee, called Vecinos, which provides healthcare services to migrant workers.

“I see a lot of anxiety and depression,” Janet James, a nurse practitioner with Vecinos, said. “They’re living in a bubble for months. They could be on another planet, away from their country and their families.”

She adds, the emotional stress can impact on their physical health too, for instance, affecting blood pressure and sleep patterns.

“It causes a lot of stress, anxiety, and depression,” James said. “We’re trying to work with them from a more accepted place, so we can talk about it.”

North Carolina is the nation’s second largest producer of Christmas Trees. The Old North State has provided the most White House Christmas trees, to include this year’s regal, 19.5 foot tall Fraser Fir. The success of the annual harvest relies on help of migrant workers, mostly from Mexico and Central America.

In Nov., a team of Vecinos employees visited a Christmas tree farm near Tuckasegee, where eight migrant workers share a cabin during the harvest. The goal was to establish rapport and gather basic intake information, like height, weight and medical history.

Vecinos CEO Marianne Martinez says it’s essential to build trust because newly arrived workers are often wary of outsiders, particularly given the current political climate.

“Rightfully so, they should be somewhat cautious about who they share their information with,” Martinez said.  

 

That’s why they brought along food and hygiene kits, containing necessities like socks and toothpaste, to give to each patient. Martinez says it also helps that one of the eight men at the camp was already registered with Vecinos, during a previous season.

Inside the cabin, a washer and dryer buzzed in the corner. Suitcases were strewn on the floor. And eight men stood quietly around bunk beds and mattresses, pushed to one side of the cabin.

“They’re only here for a month, so they don’t really get too comfortable because pretty soon they’ll be ready to go again,” Jessica Rodriguez, Vecinos lead outreach coordinator, said.  

The men watched in silence as the women set up on the other side of the cabin, in the kitchen area.  Martinez set up a height rod and scale in the kitchen area, next to the stove.

One by one, each man walked up to a Vecinos worker, spread out in different corners of the crowded room. They answered questions like, “Where are you from?,” “How long have you been here?,” and “Do you have any questions you’d like to address with a doctor?”

 

One patient, Mario Antonio told Janet James he was having trouble sleeping through the night.

James asked if he drank too much caffeine. And, “what about alcohol?,” she asked. Mario Antonio says he typically has three cokes a day and four beers in the evening. Dr. James recommended he cut back on caffeine. She encouraged him to drink more water, especially since harvesting pines is a laborious task.

But something else was underpinning his sleep woes.

 

“No estoy acostumbrado...duermo mejor en México.”

“I sleep better when I’m in Mexico,” Mario Antonio said.  

James told him anxiety could be disrupting his sleep.

“I think there’s a correlate there,” James said. “It’s probably part of the reason why they drink when they get home. They’ve worked hard. They’re very isolated. They’re away from their families and their children. It’s a way to escape.”

Another young man in the room was feeling homesick. 24-year-old Eduardo was spread out on a mattress on the floor. He’s holding a cell phone over his face. He shows me the screen. It’s a photo of a newborn baby.

 

“El regalo de navidad. Muy contento.”

“My Christmas gift,” he said. “I’m very content.”

It’s his son, Eduardo Daniel, who was born just five days ago. Eduardo left his home and his then pregnant wife in Durango, Mexico seven months ago. He’s since traveled across North Carolina, working several harvests, including tobacco, corn, watermelon and tomatoes.

 

“Gano mucho dinero acá, para mandar a mi familia. Para que puedan comer. Extraño a mi familia.”

 

“I make a lot of money here to send to my family,” Eduardo said. “So they can eat. I miss my family.”

 

Eduardo says he plans to use the money from his farm work in the US to build his family a home, to buy a plot of land and to grow his own food. He says he’s doing this work in hopes that his son won’t have to.

 

The Vecinos trio wrapped up the intake process in less than an hour. None of the eight patients seemed to have any immediate or urgent health concerns. Martinez says this could be for a few reasons -- they may want to address more specific problems during a later visit, when there’s more privacy. Vecinos follows up on initial intake visits with a mobile health unit that parks in a field, so workers can individually step inside for medical consultations.

Martinez adds, workers also might be worried that if they appear weak or sickly, the growers won’t keep them on payroll.

By the end of Vecinos’ visit, the room seemed more relaxed, almost like a holiday get-together. The men made chicken tacos with guacamole and shared their feast with the Vecinos team. Someone even turned up the stereo.

By early December, all eight men will have returned home to Mexico in time for the holidays. All of them plan to return to North Carolina for spring planting, in February.  

In the meantime, Vecinos plans on starting up a mental health program in the New Year, to include services like counseling and group therapy. CEO Marianne Martinez says the goal is to break down cultural barriers surrounding mental health and to help migrant workers get necessary care before they’re off to the next seasonal job.