The NOTL Local
It had all the feels of a long anticipated reunion, the adults hugging and laughing as the children watched with shy smiles, waiting to be introduced. Indeed it was a special kind of extended family reunion, one that began in the 1970’s as employer and his employee from a distant island. After ten years Gordon Neufeld was looking forward to reconnecting with his old friend Gilbert MacDonald at the home of Gord junior and his wife Sandra on East West Line.
Gord Neufeld Sr. fell in love with farming at an early age as he worked alongside his grandfather in the family’s tender fruit farm on Concession 6. His grandfather would bring in a family from Germany who lived in the upstairs of his house and work on their farm during the summer.
After he married, Gord and his wife Erma pursued their own dream of owning a farm. Back then a family could earn a simple but sufficient living on a 10 to 15 acre farm – under certain conditions that is. To be successful they had to have good soil, be willing to work hard and have dependable labour, especially during harvest season. The Neufelds had good soil and were willing to work hard however along with most farmers in Niagara in the 1960’s they suffered from a chronic shortage of dependable labour.
“We had to go to St.Catharines every morning to get help but they were all very unreliable people. When the peaches were ready to harvest I couldn’t afford not to be picking just because some guys were suffering from a hangover the night before. I really had difficulty “he stressed. As a result of this serious problem which they had little hope of resolving Gord and his wife decided to sell the farm and move to Strathroy to grow beans, barley, wheat and corn. It was an entirely different type of operation that was less dependent on hired help. Despite their initial success the instability of the prices in the market were a cause for concern. It was also a challenge moving to a tight knit community where other farmers were less supportive and referred to them as “foreigners”.
“When we heard that an offshore labour program started and our help situation was resolved we decided to move back to Niagara. I said to my wife, we’re going to be OK now because we’ve got good help coming in. “
With two small children in tow, Sherry and Gord Jr. , they moved to a small nursery purchased from the Ziraldo family on the Niagara Parkway.With that came an opportunity to hire a young man called Gilbert MacDonald who had worked two previous seasons at Tregunno’s farm and Ziraldo’s nursery .
Gilbert and his coworker Sylvester came to Canada from Jamaica as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Work Program ( SAWP ). The governmentprogram was designed to ease the chronic labour shortage on the tender fruit farms in Niagara. In 1968 253 men from Jamaica embarked on a pilot program which was soon eagerly embraced by the entire agricultural community.
Gilbert remembers when Gord picked them up at the airport after their first flight.“We were so hungry and Gord asked us if we had eaten on the plane and we said no. So he asked if we like pizza and we said no even though we’d never had it before. So he took us to Boston Pizza on the way home and is was so good, I was hooked!” laughed Gilbert.
Gord Neufeld was thrilled to have men who were eager to learn. Transforming the nursery to a tender fruit farm was now a possibility with two men to assist him with the planting. Gord and Erma could also make plans to expand the farm and within a few short years had a staff of six Jamaican men working from spring to fall. They became a close knit team with Erma often inviting the crew over for dinner at the end of a long work day.
“We were the first ones to have air conditioners” Gilbert enthused. “One day he asked us if it was hot in our bunkhouse and when we said yes he went right out and bought two air conditioners. The guys on the other farms were jealous cause they treated us so good !”
“I treated them like I would like I wanted to be treated. If a stove broke down I’d get them a new one. No junk on my farm” chimed in Gord Sr.
Gord junior agreed. “I remember polishing up the tractor, my dad insisted on taking good care of his equipment.”
“I remember too, every morning he would be up early, sharpening all the pruners and shears for us, they had to be sharp and ready to go! “ Gilbert said.
“Iwas also one of the first guys on the farms to get a Canadian drivers license because of Gord, practicing out there in an orchard buggy. It was great because after I got my license I could drive everyone to go shopping and around. It ws the best farm to work for, I enjoyed working with him” said Gilbert.
Gord Neufeld purchased a van and the men enjoyed going to church with the family every Sunday. When Gilbert first arrived they attended Virgil Mennonite Brethren Church and continued to join them when they made Glengate Alliance in Stamford their church home. The Neufelds always included them whenever they went to gospel concerts and special events as far away as Toronto.
“We really felt like part of the family, they would include us with everything. And that Erma she was a good cook… we really enjoyed trying new stuff” Gilbert said.
“ When I got married the whole family flew to Jamaica for our wedding. The kids and everybody, it was great” he added.
“And I had goat soup” Gord interjected. The three erupt in laughter. “I just about died. My eyes actually popped out of my head. It wasn’t just hot hot, it was burning hot. Never tasted anything like that in my life! It was a good experience though.”
My neighbours really had respect for me then,and thought wow, this guy must be really important for his boss to come all the way here!”
“ And I was shocked to see his home” interjected Gord Sr. “ it looked like a house that a government official would live in. I said, how did you get this kind of a house and he said ‘ I save my money, I don’t drink or party and this is what I have for it.”
Gilbert was proud to show the Neufelds around Mt.Olivet and the surrounding area where he grew up in St. Ann, Jamaica. As a child he would walk the six miles to Brownstown to school every day. He walked back to church with his famiily on Sundays where they spent the better part of the day in church. Some Sundays they would spend the afternoon swimming in the brilliant waters of Discovery Bay. Life was simple. They made their own toys. They enjoyed the security of extended family and a close knit community living on the compound of a former plantation. With eight aunts keeping a close eye on him there was little opportunity to make trouble!
Trust and a deeply rooted respect flowed both ways on the farm and the two kids were always eager to have Gilbert babysit when their parents went out for the evening.
“Gilbert was easygoing, always laughing, we got to stay up so late” remembered Gord Jr.
“Yes and you always begging me 5 more minutes, just let me stay up 5 more minutes” Gilbert reminded him.
“One of the things I remember most is them working in the fields and it could be the hottest day and everyone’s complaining about how hot and sticky and humid it was yet you guys would be out in the orchard singing. I guess it would help take their mind off things” Gord reminisced. Although he was still a preteen he enjoyed working alongside Gilbert and the men.
When he was in his teens his father developed a plan to put in a go cart track not far from the NOTL dump site. It soon became a very popular activity even attracting some racers from south of the border who came up to race the locals. It was a famly affair, even Gord Sr. took part , pedal to the metal and pushing the gocarts to their limits on the dirt track. Of course, his Jamaican employees were always along for the ride, cheering their boss on from the sidelines.
At this point Gord Sr. proudly pulled out a DVD and we proceeded to the family room where we enjoyed a one hour video he produced himself.
His grandchildren Jarvis, 11 and Teagen, 9, sat in rapt attention as the video brought to life the farm operations from when the first blossoms unfurled to the picking of the last baby gold. The kids were enthralled! It was their first time seeing their dad hard at work as a teen, wheeling the tractor and operating farm equipment like an old pro.
We watched as young Gordon carefuly manuevered a forklift moving the huge bins of canning peaches onto the docks for transport to the cannery in St.Davids.
“The canning factory provided our bread and butter. We negotiated the price and the orders in spring so we could be sure of our budget for the year. We didn’t have to fuss with packing, just loaded up the bins and delivered them to the cannery. Those baby golds were beautiful peaches.”
The video showed the family operation as it continued to grow . A bakery was added specializing in Erma’s and grandma’s home baked goodies. The camera followed the groups doing farm tours, featuring long tables of men in cowboy hats coming up from Texas to enjoy the Canadian style BBQ and twirl their sweethearts in the square dances.
After 12 years working for the Neufelds Gilbert was invited to work year round for Inniskillen Winery, an offer which he accepted after the immigration details were worked out. After being separated from his family eight months every year it was an offer to good to refuse.
He already felt at home in Niagara, having made so many friends in the communityover the years. His involvement at Orchard Park Church continued to grow as he was now able to take on more responsibilities year round. Although it has recently been taken over by Cornerstone Church he has welcomed the changes and the many new friends he is making.
He continues to stay closely connected to his Jamaican friends on the farms and has been involved with driving farm workers to the CWOP ( Caribbean Workers Outreach Project ) church services for the better part of 20 years.
After a short retirement he was invited back to return as a supervisor at Arterra from March to October.
“No more working in the winter for me” he laughs. He enjoys spending more time with his family and keeping in touch with his grandchildren who he is so very proud of.
There is much more we would love to talk about, including the many challenges that local farms are presently faced with. We all agree that we’ll have to get together for that discussion another time but for now there is much to think about and to be grateful for.
It was a privilege to be a part of this special evening. Together we experienced the warmth of a reunion of two men who were literally worlds apart when they first met and became the best of friends.
Gord Jr. had his arm around Teagen’s shoulders as we were preparing leave.
“My daughter takes after her grandpa, she’s hoping to be a farmer some day. She already loves driving the lawn tractor and cutting the grass. “
Teagen helps her mom care for their laying hens and loves cupping the warm eggs as they gather them on a cold winter day.
She loves learning about farming life but she will always remember her grandpas true legacy of caring for others and the special friendship that was cultivated at Parkway Farms .