It’s apple season in Western North Carolina. Hand-painted roadside signs boast cider doughnuts and homemade pies.
The beloved seasonal fruit is picked by thousands of migrant farmworkers. But with the pandemic, advocates want the government to provide safer living and working conditions for the at-risk population.
Mi Casa, Su Casa
On a dusty gravel road in Polk County, a rustic cabin sits facing an apple orchard. After each 12-hour workday, six men kick off their muddy boots and unstrap their picking buckets and leave them here on the porch before going in for the night.
Thirty-year-old Franco Manuel is from Queretero, just outside of Mexico City. Manuel says he and the others couldn’t afford to go to college back home.
“And here, for us, we make more than a professional would back home. Here, there’s more opportunity,” Manuel said.
They make about $13 for each wooden crate they fill. Their wages vary day-to-day, depending on how high they have to climb for fruit. And after such a strenuous day, an apple is the last thing the workers want to eat.
“Maybe back in Mexico we’d fancy an apple,” Manuel told BPR. “But when you get here and you see it all--no. You lose your appetite.”
Manuel says after a day in the orchard, he and his housemates just want to relax. They cook dinner together and quickly fall asleep.
It’s in those off-hours that have migrant health outreach workers particularly concerned. Jackie Antiveros is with the non-profit Blue Ridge Health that serves migrant workers in nine counties, including Henderson, which she says faces a shortage of affordable housing.
“If farmers can’t find more housing for their workers, then they’re all forced to be crammed, 16 guys to one small trailer,” Antiveros said, adding that if more resources were provided to growers to offer more spread-out living spaces, the situation would be “vastly different.”
The Core Issue
“There’s so many different factors that affect the farmworker’s health, such as breathing in pesticides, just being around dirt all the time,” said Antiveros. “So you don’t know if you’re coughing because of the pesticides you just breathed in or because you have COVID. So many of them just don’t reach out, until they're so sick.”
How many migrant workers in Western North Carolina have contracted COVID-19? That data isn’t currently publicly available because the health department does not share employment information. Advocates are pressing the state to share this data.
Antiveros says undocumented workers who travel from nearby states like Florida or Georgia are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, but they also don’t have the same access to prevention and treatment.
“The reality is those that have lived here and that have done this work for the longest are the ones that suffer the most because they can’t take advantage of any of the resources that are being provided,” Antiveros said.
The majority of hired hands to pick the signature fruit are temporary migrant workers, either undocumented or on temporary H2-A visas. Those visa applicants had to test negative for coronavirus before being allowed to cross the border.
“We’re talking about people who are here under a government program,” said Lariza Garzon, executive director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry. The nonprofit in Dunn advocates for policies to better protect the state’s estimated 150,000 farmworkers. “The least we can do if we’re going to invite them to North Carolina to work in the fields is to provide them the dignified and safe conditions to work and live under.”
Garzon and other advocates are pressing lawmakers to pass spending to ensure adequate housing and health services for migrant workers.
On August 13, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order pledging to protect the state’s temporary workers in agriculture and meat processing. That order would have ensured protections for workers, including mandatory personal protective equipment and screenings for the virus. But in early September, the governor rescinded the order, citing pushback from state officials.
“Whether you like it or not, there are documented and undocumented immigrants who live in North Carolina,” said Garzon. ”They’re part of our society, they’re part of our community, they’re contributing just like you are. If their well being is assured, then the well being of all of us will be assured.”
At the log cabin in Polk County, Franco Manuel and his fellow apple pickers are doing their best to stay safe from COVID-19 for the remaining weeks in their temporary home.
But that’s just one concern. After a long day in the orchard, their bodies ache. So Blue Ridge Health taught the crew new stretches for their backs and shoulders they can begin now and continue after they’ve returned to their homes in Mexico.