October 18, 2019
It begins at dawn with the early light filtering through the haze to show the vines.
The group gathers quietly underneath the large oak tree on the perimeter of the vineyard, grabbing the coffee, donuts and fruit that are placed out on the table — a quick breakfast as they become fully awake and start the day.
Clad in rubber boots that resist the damp grass and light layers that can be removed as the sun rises higher in the sky, they all head into the vines with their lugs and shears, ready to begin the harvest dance.
The newbies gather and are shown the tools of the trade: shears, lugs, bins.
The bird netting was lifted shortly before the crews arrived. With beads of dew flinging off, it’s tucked up high out of the way.
As more workers join in and enter the vineyard, a human chain stretches over the hill and down the other side, with someone standing every few yards.
It’s a family affair; from the oldest harvesters to the youngest, everyone gathers for the harvest.
HARD AT WORK: Work in a vineyard can be long and tedious with the harvesting done by hand.
The chatter increases as the morning sun gets brighter. Once the caffeine begins to kick in, a radio is tuned. Whether it’s country or bluegrass or even some old rock and roll, it occasionally spurs spontaneous dancing in the rows.
The mood is focused and determined, yet joyful. This is the moment a farmer is allowed some small, quiet pride. To have it before would tempt fate, but now with harvest in hand, the year’s work can be savored.
The fruit is admired over and over as it’s plucked from the vine. All the work is done by hand, so the crop is truly known every step of the way.
The youngest, those not old enough to work with sharp shears, lift and carry and dump the lugs. They compete with each other as they see how much they can carry. They swagger slightly; after all, these are young farmers in the making.
The lugs fill the bins, which are picked up by the tractor that rolls behind the crew in the finished rows. The smell of diesel puffs lightly into the air, and the older workers are reminded fondly of their youth. The smell of tractors is the smell of their childhood.
Processing begins up in the barn, and the sound of working equipment filters down the hill. The elevator, de-stemmer, crusher, filters, pumps and the occasional shouted command join the chorus of the day.
Then come the bees. Drawn by the sweet smell of the juice, they weave in and out, creating unseen patterns between the harvesters. They hover over the equipment, darting in and out for a taste. The workers and the winged ones move delicately but determinedly around each other, neither wanting to disrupt the other but both intent on their task.
Brows are wiped, bee stings are addressed, cuts are bandaged and lunch is announced. Boots are kicked off and people lounge as sandwiches, chips and wine are passed around. The weather is talked about and everyone compares the crop to last year’s harvest.
FRUITS OF LABOR: Whether it’s grapes, or even corn or soybeans, there is a lot of pride in seeing a harvested crop at the end of the season.
Now, second shift arrives, taking their places at the shaker table. This is a different kind of work. It is detailed yet monotonous, crucial to the quality process. The table hums, the elevator runs and casual chatter is kept to a minimum as eyes scour the table. The berries are pushed along; green berries and anything MOG (material other than grapes) are picked out, ensuring that only the best grapes are made into wine.
Nighttime falls and the cleaning begins. It’s no one’s favorite job, but it must be done. Spraying, washing, rinsing, and spraying again and again. Cleaning the multitude of equipment is akin to washing the world’s biggest dish pile by hand. All the stainless steel must sparkle when done.
The day has been long, and the night feels longer. The work is done, and the farm is now quiet. Dinner will be skipped or eaten hastily over the sink while waiting for a turn in the shower.
Weary muscles will stretch into the bed and tired bones will sink gratefully into the mattress as sleep descends.
Only three more harvest sessions to go. We’ll mutter quietly as we shut our eyes, dreaming of the varieties soon to ripen and the harvest days to begin again.
Watson-Hampton farms with her family on their fourth-generation family farm in Brandywine, Md.
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