first day of grape & bean harvest

Farmflash:

  • ghosts of an LA farm continue to haunt; community members still protesting its loss.
  • water conference discusses dangers and benefits of wastewater agriculture (yup, that means what you think it does), as well as extent of practice (more common than you think).
  • similar to the ‘county bounty’ program recently discussed on this blog, Boston’s InSeason aims to provide customers with fresh, local food; it’s easy-to-use and guilt-free to boot (delivered not by boot, but by bike.)
  • Canada‘s concerned about the economic feasibility of local ag, given suburban sprawl and a lack of willing farmworkers.

And now for a bit of Foggy River news:

Today was the first day of the grape harvest — sparkling wines only, since they require less sugar and therefore less ripeness than traditional wines — so Emmett and I spent the morning helping out his dad in the vineyard. Translation: two and a half hours of grape picking before heading over to the veggie field to play beat-back-the-jungle.

If you’ve never picked wine grapes, it’s tough work. Apples, plums, cherries, green beans, and berries might be time consuming, but they’re pretty straightforward. Wine grapes actually require a fair bit of concentration and a heck of a lot of finesse. Professional pickers use a Captain Hook knife (curved like a hook, but serrated), reaching behind the bunch, swiftly yanking towards themselves, and letting the grape bunch drop directly into the harvest bin which is placed at their feet.

So far, so good. And while the bunches sometimes hang just so, right out there in the open to swipe and drop, with nice thin vines that cut through like butter — more often than not, they don’t. Sometimes two or three bunches will grow and tangle into one; the mega-bunch requires two or three passes of the knife. Sometimes the bunch will grow unfortunately around another vine, making it extremely difficult to find and sever the attachment point. Sometimes the vine is especially woody and tough to cut through — which means you have to apply a large amount of pressure with a sharp knife, endangering your other hand (which is positioned nearby, ready to funnel the grape bunch into the bin.) Sometimes the bunch will wrap around a supporting wire and you have to wrest it free, shattering a number of grape berries in the process.

Which brings me to my next point: harvesting wine grapes is extremely sticky work. The skins are thin, and it’s impossible to harvest without popping some of the berries. Each popped grape results in a miniature explosion of clear, sticky juice. Your hands become coated first; then the knife; then your shirt, face, hair — anything you touch. (So much for last night’s shower.)

After working for just a few hours, I developed a huge amount of appreciation for the men who harvest the grapes. The speed with which they harvest puts my clumsy attempts to shame. Not only are they quick with the knife, but they actually run — carrying full bins of grapes, which are quite heavy — to the tractor that follows them along the rows. They deposit their load and then run back to the vine where they left off. They’re paid by the bin, and work in teams, so everyone wants to harvest as quickly as possible. One team’s harvest is split equally among the men, and nobody wants to be the weakest link.

Speaking of the weakest link, Emmett and I spent the rest of the morning beating back the bean jungle — pounding two more posts into the fence to try and support the miscreant Blue Lake beans, and then harvesting the heck out of the insanely prolific Dow Purple Podded Snaps. It was our first time harvesting the beans (Emmett’s parents had harvested them on Friday for the market), and ooooowee was it an eye-opening experience. It took two of us one hour to harvest half a row of purple beans. (I think we’re going to have to do a cost-benefit analysis on our pole beans, or maybe pick a certain section to “let go” and harvest for soup beans.)

For now, I leave you with this thought: the next time you take a sip of wine or bite into a tender, tasty string bean, be grateful. Very grateful.

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