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AgHC, Carolina Farm Credit give masks to farm industry workers

AgHC Executive Director Mark Williams hands out masks at a Van Wingerden International greenhouse in Mills River. AgHC Executive Director Mark Williams hands out masks at a Van Wingerden International greenhouse in Mills River.

MILLS RIVER — The greenhouses at VanWingerden International in Mills River are nearly empty, but it’s not because business has fallen off.

“Right now, we’re shipping all our ornamental flowers to Lowe’s and Ingles,” said Range Manager James Cantrell. “This is one of the few times of year when you can actually see our floors.” Getting those shipments prepared and out the door requires that his employees work in close proximity to one another, often in far less space than the CDC-recommended six feet to help prevent exposure to COVID-19.

Cantrell manages about 45 employees in his “range." There are about 150 employees total at VWI, a grower and supplier of plants and flowers. “For weeks, we’ve been having trouble getting personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect our employees,” he explained. “Our growers were having to backorder masks.

But on Thursday, all 150 of the employees at the wholesale greenhouse received reusable face masks from Agribusiness Henderson County, who plans to distribute over 1,000 more to agribusiness workers throughout the county.

“We wanted to show support for our ag operations and express the concern we share for the safety and well-being of our farm workers,” AgHC Executive Director Mark Williams said as he passed out masks emblazoned with the AgHC logo on them. “The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has officially recognized agriculture as a critical industry during the pandemic, but of course we consider our agribusiness workers to be critical no matter what. We depend on this group of hardworking folks and appreciate what they do, so the masks are just a way of letting them know we care about them.”

Williams purchased the masks with a $5,000 grant from Carolina Farm Credit, who offers it every year to support organizations that further the future of agriculture in North Carolina. The grant had originally been earmarked to conduct a study on the economic impact of agriculture, but shortly after AgHC received the funds, the pandemic broke out.

“It didn’t seem appropriate to use the grant for the study during the pandemic and helping our ag operations protect hundreds of workers in the industry who needed PPE was a higher priority,” says Williams. He called Mitchel Pridmore, Regional Lending Manager at Carolina Farm Credit (CFC), to see if the grant could be used for the production of masks for farm workers instead.

“We thought it was a great idea,” Pridmore said. “The agricultural industry must continue production to feed our world, and farm employees often have to work close to one another. Using the grant to make and distribute masks filled the critical need of protecting our agriculture workers.”

Once the CFC OK'd the idea, Williams turned to local textile manufacturer MWW on Demand, a division of Manual Woodworkers & Weavers, to make the masks. MWW was able to manufacture 1,250 masks in a matter of days, and now Williams is taking them to agriculture workers throughout Henderson County, with members of AgHC being given first priority.

“Henderson County will see its peak of farm workers in the next few months with produce season and continue with apples and green industry crops,” he said. “If we need to get more masks made, we’ll do our best to make that happen.”

“We’re thankful that AgHC has stepped in to help fill the need of PPE,” said Cantrell, who adds that VWI also provides all employees with gloves. “Having the proper PPE doesn’t just protect our workers; it also protects consumers.”