JEFFERSON-Ashe County’s Hispanic population has grown exponentially since 1980, according to U.S. Census data.
The county’s burgeoning Christmas tree industry might have played a role in this change, as the community experienced a 478 percent increase in the Hispanic population from 1990 to 2014.
According to the census data, there were 102 Hispanics living in the county in 1990. This represented less than half of a percent of the county’s total 22,209 population. That number increased to 590 in 2000. In 2014, there were 1,444 documented Hispanics living in Ashe County – comprising 5 percent of the county’s total population. This accounted for a 145 percent increase from 2000. The data does not include information on undocumented residents.
According to U.S. Census, there were 890,000 Hispanics living in North Carolina in 2014. This represented 9 percent of the state’s total population. The median age of this group was 24 years of age. The median annual personal earnings were $19,000. The poverty rate for Hispanics 17 and younger was 41 percent, according to the data. The number of Hispanics without health insurance in North Carolina was 34 percent. Hispanic home ownership was estimated to be at 42 percent. Hispanics also comprise 14 percent of all K-12 students.
Impact of Christmas tree industry
The skyrocketing growth of Ashe County’s Hispanic population could be tied to the Christmas tree industry.
According to a report conducted by N.C. State University, Christmas tree production is a $100 million-dollar per year industry in North Carolina. From a handful of entrepreneurs in the mid 1950s, the industry has grown to around 2,000 Christmas tree growers who produce approximately 20 percent of Christmas trees in the United States, according to a paper written by Jim Hamilton, of the N.C. Department of Forestry.
Hispanic workers, primarily from Mexico, are prevalent among many of these Christmas tree producers and make up the majority of the labor force in the industry, said Hamilton.
The first Hispanic labor began appearing on the larger tree operation in the early 1980s because Christmas tree growers began more actively recruiting these workers, said Hamilton.
The majority of workers were migrant laborers who had been working other seasonal crops in the area. Some growers mentioned that they recruited labor from the unemployment office where workers often sought employment. Hamilton said some of the growers were also initially impressed by the Hispanic labor because of their efficiency, work ethic and reliability.
Hamilton said that many growers feel that the influx of Hispanic labor has permitted the industry to grow as large as it has and have stated that the “industry would dry up if it weren’t for the Mexicans”. However, it appears that growers were expanding their operations anyway due to increasing demand and market stability for their trees. Hispanic migrant workers from other crops were the first and best available labor source they could find. Once word spread among the worker community that there was longer-term work available in Christmas trees, more workers began arriving, said Hamilton.
Reach Jesse Campbell at (336) 846-7164.