Between the Vines

I vividly remember Take Our Kids to Work Day in grade nine, it was the beginning of our high school career signifying that we too will soon enter the coveted workforce and bid adieu to the dreaded school bell. (Hindsight is 20/20, amiright?)

While other kids in my grade were pumped about the idea of tagging along with their parents to the big City to do what grown-ups do best, work, I on the other hand was less thrilled about my dad taking me to his work. A couple of reasons, but the main one being that I was embarrassed to talk about where I went for TOKTWD with my peers. As we all know, high school is tough, mean girls do exist, and 14-year-olds just want to be Cher Horowitz, not some farm kid.

Fast-forward 18 years later (don’t do the math), I am shadowing my dad again for a day in the life of grape farmer under my own volition. Things have changed slightly, like the truck my dad is driving, but everything else still looks the same: the grapes are still purple, the leaves are still green, and the barn is still standing. What is new is the fact that my brothers, all too young at the time of TOKTWD, have found their own niche doing what they love on the farm. IMG_8206

It’s a busy Saturday during harvest and there’s lot of action on the farm. The crew were out early harvesting grapes for an 8am drop-off at a nearby winery, then a rinse and repeat for an 11am drop-off at a different winery. There is much to do and the crew are racing against the impending rainstorm that is on its way. Back at the barn, the group has a long break – their next grape drop-off isn’t scheduled until 11pm.IMG_8190

Since we have some time to kill, I meet up with my younger brother for a quick catchup. After we chat about life, I get down to the nitty-gritty.
“So, what do you do now?” I ask, as I figured they would be picking from 9-5 with a few breaks in-between.
“We catch up on paperwork, clean the machines, help the guys in the vineyard. There’s always something to do.”
“How do you manage everything?” I ask.
“What do you mean?” He retorts.
“You know, all the farms you pick for, what wineries get what, who’s harvesting where?”
“It’s a challenge coordinating everything, but we have a great team that we trust and rely on.” He then shows me the day’s schedule on a dry-erase board and tells me that it is updated daily for the team to check regularly, and further adds that communication is key.
My phone buzzes, “It’s go time. They are about to pick chardonnay on concession 8. I’m coming to get you.”IMG_0258

A few minutes later, I’m tagging along beside my dad like it’s grade nine again, but this time I’m interested. Unlike grade nine, a few colourful words escape my dad’s mouth as stress levels increase due to to the time constraint they are battling.
“Why is the rain bad?” I naively ask.
“We need the weather to remain warm and dry. We can’t pick in the rain, and the longer we wait the more susceptible the grapes are to rot. I can’t sell rotten fruit.”
“Oh” I respond, as I silently pray to the weather gods to not mess with my dad.

We make our way down a bumpy back road and spot the harvester already in one of the rows. A few seconds later, I’m riding on what can only be described as a transformer as the machine straddles a row and picks the grapes. The driver, one of three on the farm, tells me that this is his favourite part of the job, and I can see why. You are on top of the world.
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Summers on the fruit farm(s)

I love summer in Niagara: senses are heightened, weather is perfect, and the landscape is abundant with delicious colourful local food. Farm-to-table is an easy motto to adopt, as farmers’ markets pop up in busy locales and fruit stands decorate dreamy country roads. But for many Niagara-ites, farming isn’t just perfect Instagram pictures, or tasty treats, farming is life.

During the sticky humid summer months, there is no shortage of work for eager hands in Niagara as fruit farmers enthusiastically welcome as many labourers as they can acquire. With over 700 fruit farms in the Niagara Region and a tight time-frame to follow, help is needed, albeit arduous and exhausting, and the pay is, well you’re not going to become a millionaire, but the memories gained outweigh the negative.

Growing up, my summers were spent helping my dad in the vineyard and neighbouring farmers tend their fruit, as my own eager hands, in quick succession, worked in fields and barns pruning, picking and packing.

Let me preface, when I say eager, I mean told – I didn’t want to spend my summers working on farms. I wanted to laze around the pool, binge-watch television, gossip with girlfriends, but instead, was instructed by the authority figures (my parents) to get off my keister and work. I hated it! It was hard work, the hardest work my teenage body ever encountered, and it was boring, so very boring. I can’t tell you how many grapevines I have pruned, or the number of cherries I have picked, or the amount of apricots, peaches and plums I have packed. However, I can tell you the horror stories of what happens when you eat too many cherries, or the feel of peach fuzz on your skin after an eight-hour shift, or what happens to your nails after repeatedly rubbing them against the rubber conveyor belt.

Once I learned how to overcome the, shall we say, obstacles, it wasn’t that bad. I worked with great people, both locals and migrant workers, and shared laughs, meals and stories. It helped that my bff was there as well, which made the time slightly speed on by as we would tell tales, listen to audio books, and get and give advice, mostly on school, guys, and clothes – the priorities of teenage girls.

Those four summers spent working on fruit farms created the foundation of who I am today. I learned what it takes to be a hard worker, how to listen to others, and the importance of respect, followed by a greater appreciation for the fruits of our labour.

So buy local, not only does it taste better, it supports our local agricultural communities.IMG_4426PS. Have you been following the “The Hands That Feed Us” series in the St.Catharines Standard by Niagara-based writer, Tiffany Mayer?  If not, you really should!