The Christmas tree industry’s impact on the growth of hispanic diversity in Appalachia
The Appalachia region is arguably the most popular area in the country for the distribution of Christmas trees. Ashe County, North Carolina is ranked as the number one county in the country for Christmas tree sales. Ashe produces just under 2 million trees per year and is the county responsible for giving the White House their annual tree this year, a 19-foot Fraser fir provided by Peak Farms. With the business providing popularity and tourism in the region, it also provides a growth in diversity, specifically giving living opportunities to the Hispanic demographic.
The Hispanic community has been the fastest spreading population in Appalachia. Census data from 2010 shows the percentage change in the Hispanic population of the U.S. at 43 percent, while the percentage for the Appalachia region was 120 percent. In Ashe County, the Hispanic population has grown from roughly 2 percent to roughly 6 percent from 2000 to 2019. The Christmas tree industry has much to do with this growth.
Hispanic workers make up a large part of the workforce for the Christmas tree industry. Malachi Poe, a foreman for Cardinal Tree Farms in Ashe County, said the farm just hired 20 new Hispanic workers for this year’s harvest.
“Overall, this business has provided and given many opportunities to the Hispanic community that if not for its presence here in this region they would not receive,” Poe said.
Many of the Hispanic workforce in the region’s tree businesses are contract laborers, otherwise known as H2A workers. The H2A program involves the government authorizing agricultural businesses and employers to bring in nonimmigrant foreign workers to work for them for a provisional period. The workers are registered through the government and are provided housing and vehicles by the tree growers. The largest H2A employer in the U.S. is the North Carolina Grower’s Association, which employed 10,650 workers in 2020. The program has served as an outlet of assistance for the Hispanic population in need of guaranteed work.
For the Hispanic population not involved in H2A contract work, the Christmas tree industry has allowed them to start and sustain a healthy living situation in the United States. Due to the vast number of growers in Ashe County and the Appalachia region, Hispanic families have been able to plant roots in the area. The industry also serves as a gateway to the region for Hispanic workers.
“Many times, they will work in the Christmas trees for several years and then work towards starting their own business of some kind once they’ve built up rapport in the community,” said Poe.
With the Christmas tree business offering better living opportunities for the Hispanic demographic, this correlates to an increase in diverse culture in the region.
“With living around here for most of my life, any opportunity I had to introduce diversity I took because the county is so remote, and it has changed in some degree largely because of the Hispanic population,” said Scott Ballard, owner of West End Wreaths, located in Ashe County. West End Wreaths are on pace to sell 25,000 wreaths this season.
Since the tree industry has served as a culture altering business mainly due to Hispanic workers for Ashe County and other Appalachia regions, there has been growth of Hispanic businesses, restaurants, and community involvement. The impact that the Hispanic demographic has had in this region has been an important addition to Appalachian diversity. Growing up in Ashe County my whole life, I have personally witnessed the footprints that the Hispanic population has left on our county. These footprints are the expansion of Hispanic churches, workers entering labor force areas such as healthcare, law enforcement, and trade, and the creation of a strong community voice in a county that had a 92 percent Caucasian population in 2020. These circumstances have all been made more likely thanks to the Christmas tree industry that helped grow the Hispanic population. I am thankful for the tree business opening the door to more diversity in Ashe County and the Appalachia region, and I have a sincere appreciation for the Hispanic workers that went through sacrifice and hardship to help create those doorways.
“You cannot find a harder-working group of people, and the majority of them are upstanding. They are truly outstanding, and we are blessed to have them,” said Ballard.