If you’ve ever visited local farm stands in search of the perfect peach you would likely have met Paul Bent at the colourful Epp farm stand on the Niagara River Parkway. Some locals like to come early to the T&R Jones family stand at Concession 4 and Niagara Stone Road to exchange a friendly greeting with Donovan Gordon, who would be hustling to set up the market for the day.
Both of these men share a lot in common. Paul has been coming to Niagara for 34 years, working for Epp Farms. Donovan has been coming here for 26 years, working at Kai Wiens farm for his first 10 years and with Tom and Rhonda Jones since.
In the 1960s, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program was heralded as an innovative way to address what was perceived as a short-term labour problem.
For men such as Paul and Donovan, the farm program wasn’t part of their long-term plan either. They both had big dreams but a shortage of cash. Newly married with young families, a few years on the farm work program in Canada seemed like just the ticket to getting those dreams up and running.
What Paul could never imagine was that Anthony, the young baby he cradled in his arms, would also be battling peach fuzz and working 10 to 12 hour days harvesting peaches on the same Niagara farm just 19 years later. I met Paul’s son Anthony and a few years after that, and Donovan’s son Jodane through my involvement at the CWOP church services (Caribbean Workers Outreach Project )
Anthony was an enthusiastic and regular attender at the services they held Sunday nights in May and June. When a large portion of the NOTL farm was sold he was transferred to a farm in Jordan. He was quick to get involved with the farm worker outreach activities at Southridge Vineland Church, which was in its early stages. As someone who keenly felt his father’s absence for eight months of the year growing up, he missed the daily connection that he had with his father at the Epp farm.
Karen Buller, one of his good friends and a volunteer at Southridge, took note. For a number of years she would drive him to Niagara-on-the-Lake on Father’s Day, so they could enjoy some time and a meal together.
While Paul continues to work at the Epp farm until November, Anthony transfers even farther away to Meaford for the apple harvest. Trying to get a photo of them together this season proved futile, due to work schedules that simply couldn’t accommodate a short visit.
There are similar threads woven into Donovan’s story. His wife Josephine raised five children and managed a teaching career while Donovan worked to support the family in Niagara for eight months of the year. She was a passionate educator who loved tutoring her children, pursuing excellence in their schooling. Three of the children
have completed university studies while Jodane shares Donovan’s love of farming and animal husbandry, raising beef cattle in their home parish of St. Elizabeth.
Jodane was employed at Royalview farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake for five years and enjoyed time with his father on many occasions after work. He was a vibrant and enthusiastic member of the worship team at the CWOP services as well as an engaging speaker when contributing during the open mic sessions. His coworkers continue to speak highly of him. He was especially appreciated for his generosity, his sense of humour and encouragement that motivated the crew when the going got tough during harvest season.
In 2020, Josephine developed health concerns and by February of this year she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Donovan had to make the painful decision whether to stay at home to care for her or return to Niagara so that he could pay for her extensive medical bills and further treatment. The decision was made that Jodane would be the one to stay home in order to provide 24-hour care for her.
It was an agonizing season for Donovan, hoping she would make it until he returned home. Early one August morning Donovan received a call from his sister, informing him that his mother had passed away. He called Jodane to pass along the news and to check on his wife’s wellbeing only to have his son answer, heavy with grief, and inform him that Josephine had passed away at home only minutes earlier.
Being separated from loved ones eight months of the year is painful, but as the men often say, “you have to work with it,” and find a way to adapt. There is nothing, however, that can prepare someone for dealing with the intense grief of losing loved ones and being deprived of family support during these times.
Donovan was in shock. His wife was only 51, and they had been looking forward to many plans for their future. He went through the motions of work, planning funerals for his wife and his mother, and in the evenings attending to the legalities, which were much more complicated over the phone.
In September, he was able to travel home for the two funerals and with his employer’s support returned to the farm three weeks later. This allows him to finish his work contract, enabling him to earn more towards paying down medical bills and funeral expenses.
Donovan expressed his gratitude for the support he has received from so many neighbours and friends in Niagara during this difficult time.
He is hoping a local farmer will request Jodane to come back to NOTL to work, now that he has been released from caring for his mother. Farmers must send in a request for employees in order for them to return on the farm work program.
In my conversations with fathers such as Paul and Donovan, I am reminded how precious time is with their families in the few short months they have together every year.
A few of the colourful farm stands are still open on weekends, holding the memories of a highly successful season, despite the challenges of carrying on through a pandemic and loyal commitments to loved ones far away. They are also a reminder of the sacrifices made by two generations to ensure that Canadians have food on our tables.