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Volunteers help vaccinate farm workers in Ridge Spring as peach season begins in South Carolina

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Pink is a prominent part of the picture for a couple of weeks in March around portions of Edgefield, Saluda and Lexington counties, and that time arrived last week for thousands of acres.

"We've had a perfect season for growing peaches – been kind of wet, but actually we're … 10 days behind last year, on the blooms," said Jerry Watson, with Watsonia Farms, which includes 480 peach-dedicated acres in Monetta, with squash, bell pepper, eggplant and tomatoes among other major offerings spread among Aiken, Saluda and Lexington counties.

The scenery now includes "the prettiest bloom set that I can ever remember having," Watson said. "We're real fortunate. We've got a beautiful crop coming in, and everything looks real good."

He, like some of his peers, added that "everything can change on a dime" due to such factors as a cold snap. Pruning peach trees and planting vegetables are the focal points of the moment, Watson said. 

Busloads of migrant farm workers are now in motion, and the past few days' activity included workers out to help strip some – not all – blossoms off certain tree varieties, to help improve fruit size and quality in the months ahead.

Sarah Oswald Scott, with Clemson University's extension service, retraced the past few months.

"We have had a good winter in terms of reaching chilling requirements for varieties grown in the state. Trees are reaching their bloom stage, which is on track for this time of year. We still have potential for cold weather so some blooms could be damaged if temperatures reach below 36 for an extended period of time. However, we don't need 100% of those blooms in order to produce a nice crop for the season," she wrote.

One prominent local resident pointed out that sightseeing is a factor when blooms are at their peak.

"We have lots of tourists come here just to see the peaches in bloom," said Pat Asbill, Ridge Spring's mayor. 

"In our town, you couldn't have found a parking place on Saturday, because people were here to see the peaches in bloom, and plus, they come in all colors of pink – lavender to deep pinks – and they love to see all the color." 

Plum blossoms are a bonus at the moment, "and they're white, so they give a good contrast," she added. "We appreciate peach season, not only for our farmers, but for our stores and town. It brings so many people into town." 

The biggest peach producer east of California, Ridge Spring's Titan Farms, provided the host site for an unusual event Saturday with more than 800 farm workers on hand to receive their first of the two COVID-19 vaccinations – "a wonderful event," in the assessment of Chalmers Carr III, Titan's owner, CEO and president.

Dozens of volunteers, including students and staff members from Augusta University, helped provide the COVID-19 vaccination services, as did employees of Carolina Health Centers, based in Greenwood.

"The Ridge," as the local peach-growing area is known to some, was represented by busloads of workers with such employers as Titan, Costa Layman, Dixie Belle, Big Smile and Cotton Hope. 

"This is not just for migrant workers," Carr said, in the midst of Saturday's action. "This is for … U.S. citizens, too, that work in the agricultural field. When they told me we were going to do 200 shots an hour, I said, 'No, I don't believe it,' but doggone if I don't think they're doing it."

Several translators were part of the effort, with emphasis on helping Spanish-language speakers go through the process as smoothly as possible. Helping bridge the gap was Hector Picon, a second-year medical student at Medical College of Georgia. 

"I like to help out the Hispanic community," he said. "It's a very vulnerable community, and … in Georgia and South Carolina, their numbers are just really huge out there on these farms, so getting out here to try to give back to them is really important to me."

Pam Cromer, a professor of nursing at Augusta University, pointed out that medical and nursing students alike were a part of the effort. She said, "It helps us. It helps them. It helps the farm workers. It keeps our communities healthy. It's a win-win situation."

Elena Prendergast, a director in the university's program for clinical nurse leaders, made similar comments.

"This is the first time we've actually had such a large gathering of all the farms coming together. I think the great thing about it is, all these students came on their own time. They weren't getting anything for it," she said. "They weren't getting any credit for it, but what we're showing is that as a university, our students are already being instilled in giving back to their communities, and several of us, like myself, are Hispanic, so this is a community that's very near and dear to my heart, as well as some of our medical students."

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