Farm to vaccine

Farm to vaccine: Some agricultural workers getting shots early

The Recorder, March 6, 2021. By DOMENIC POLI, Staff Writer

Ryan Voiland got his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine about a week and a half ago. He is scheduled to get the second and final shot March 24. But he d o e s n’t work at a hospital or long-term care facility. He co-owns Red Fire Farm. While most agricultural workers fall under Phase 2, Group 3, of the state’s rollout plan, the Community Health Center of Franklin County is working with the grant-funded Connecticut River Valley Farmworker Health Program to coordinate vaccinations with a special focus on workers in congregate living, such as barracks and shared housing, though that is not a requirement. CEO Dr. Allison van der Velden said communal settings carry significantly higher rates of disease.

Van der Velden said the health center has relationships with about 60 area farms, and roughly 200 workers from 10 of them had been vaccinated by Wednesday, having started a couple of weeks ago. The health center is reaching out to farm workers, not accepting requests for appointments from them.

Voiland, who runs Red Fire Farm with his wife, Sarah, said most of his workers are enthusiastic about receiving the vaccine, though some are hesitant. He said most of those workers are Latino. Minority populations in the United States are disproportionately distrusting of vaccines due a troubling track record of having been exploited as guinea pigs for medical research and experiments in the past. Voiland, who grows produce in Montague and Granby, said he empathizes with minority workers but said widespread vaccination is “the only way to get on top of this whole problem.”

“We’re trying to educate people and make sure everybody ’s comfortable,” he said. “My opinion is it’s a very important thing to make sure everybody is safe, both on the farm and in society in general.”

Voiland said some of his staffers are, like him, in the middle of the vaccination process. He said he typically has 25 workers in the winter and 70 in peak season.

Rachel Monette, compliance officer at Nourse Farms in Whately, said the crew received their doses of the Moderna vaccine the week of Feb. 22.

“They did such an amazing job getting our crew in and out, and they were really pleasant to work with, as always,” she said. “We had some arm soreness. I lot of us went to bed early that night, children permitting. But otherwise we felt fine. Personally, I had a brief bout of lip numbness that was strange but short-lived.

“We have an amazing crew here at Nourse and we ask them to show up for us every single day as essential workers,” she added, “so we were just grateful to coordinate this opportunity to keep them safe.”

David Wissemann, who coowns Warner Farm and Millstone Farm Market in Sunderland, said he believes most of his staff members are interested in getting vaccinated. He said the Community Health Center of Franklin County will reach out to sign up his employees.

“We’ve only had a few people feeling a little bit nervous about it,” Wissemann said.

He said there is a core staff of about 10 and that balloons to about 20 during peak season.

Kyle Bostrom, who owns Bostrom Farm in Greenfield, said his staff consists of himself and two part-timers, who are more like contractors because they are paid in cash. He said Thursday he planned to look into the earliest they could get the vaccine. The farm on Colrain Road has dairy cows, grows a variety of plants, herbs and vegetables, and raises grass-fed beef and pork. Bostrom said he opened an on-site butcher shop a couple of months ago to package the meats and all safety guidelines have been followed. Still, he said, he can’t wait to receive the vaccine.

Van der Velden said many of the agricultural workers getting vaccinated are already patients of the Community Health Center of Franklin County.

“We have a couple of employees dedicated to working with their program,” she said.

Van der Velden said a combination of working and living conditions make farm workers disproportionately more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. She said patients often dislike receiving shots due to a fear of needles, but this is different.

“It’s been really interesting,” she said. “There is palatable sense of relief in the air.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: d p o l i @recorder.c o m .