It had all the feel of a long-anticipated reunion, 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 1970s for employer and his then-employee from a distant island. Gordon Neufeld was looking forward to reconnecting with his old friend Gilbert MacDonald at the home of Gord Jr. and his wife Sandra on East and West Line.
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 in the summer, to live in the upstairs of his house and work on the farm.
After he married, Neufeld Sr. and his wife Erna 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. 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 1960s, they suffered from a chronic shortage of dependable labour.
Neufeld Sr. remembers going to St. Catharines every morning to get help, but the workers he found were not reliable, he said.
“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.”
As a result of the shortage of reliable labour, which they had little hope of resolving, he 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, and one that was less dependent on hired help.
Despite their initial success, the instability of the prices in the market were a cause for concern, he said. It was also a challenge moving to a tight-knit community where other farmers were less supportive and referred to them as “foreigners,” said Neufeld Sr.
“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 okay 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 River Parkway.
With that came an opportunity to hire a young man named Gilbert MacDonald who had worked two previous seasons at Tregunno’s farm and Ziraldo’s nursery. MacDonald and a friend and coworker came to Canada from Jamaica as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Work Program (SAWP), 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, and which has grown to bring 2,000 to 3,000 farm workers to Niagara today.
MacDonald remembers when Neufeld Sr. 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. He took us to Boston Pizza on the way home and is was so good, I was hooked!” laughed MacDonald.
Neufeld Sr. was thrilled to have men who were eager to learn, he said. Transforming the nursery to a tender fruit farm was now a possibility with two men to assist him with the planting. He and Erna 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 Erna often inviting the crew over for dinner at the end of a long work day.
“We were the first ones to have air conditioners,” MacDonald said. “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 want to be treated. If a stove broke down I’d get them a new one,” said Neufeld Sr. “No junk on my farm.”
Neufeld Jr. 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,” said MacDonald.
“I was also one of the first guys on the farms to get a Canadian driver’s licence because of Gord, practising out there in an orchard buggy.”
After he got his licence, he could drive the other men around to do their shopping, he said. “It was the best farm to work for. I enjoyed working with him.”
The men enjoyed going to church with the family every Sunday in Neufeld Sr.’s van. When MacDonald first arrived in Niagara they attended Virgil Mennonite Brethren Church, and he continued to join them when they made Glengate Alliance in Stamford their church home. The Neufelds always included the men when 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 in everything. And that Erna, she was a good cook. We really enjoyed trying new stuff,” said MacDonald.
“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,” recalled Neufeld Jr. 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,” said MacDonald.
“And I was shocked to see his home,” said Neufeld 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.’”
MacDonald said he 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 family on Sundays, when 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, recalls MacDonald.
Trust and a deeply-rooted respect flowed both ways on the Neufeld farm and the two kids were always eager to have MacDonald babysit when their parents went out for the evening.
“Gilbert was easygoing, always laughing. We got to stay up so late,” remembered Neufeld Jr.
Neufeld Jr. recalls the men 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.” Although he was still a preteen he enjoyed working alongside MacDonald and the other men, he said.
When Neufeld Jr. 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, attracting racers from south of the border who came up to race the locals. It was a family affair, even Neufeld Sr. taking part, pedal to the metal and pushing the go-carts to their limits on the dirt track. His Jamaican employees were always along for the ride, cheering their boss on from the sidelines.
Neufeld Sr. is proud of a one-hour DVD he produced himself.
When his grandchildren Jarvis, 11 and Teagan, nine, watched it, the video brought to life the farm operations from when the first blossoms unfurled to the picking of the last baby gold. It was the kids’ first time seeing their dad hard at work as a teen, wheeling the tractor and operating farm equipment like an old pro.
Young Gordon carefully maneuvered 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,” said Neufeld Sr. “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 Erna’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 barbecue and twirl their sweethearts in square dances.
After 12 years working for the Neufelds, MacDonald was invited to work year round for Inniskillin Estate Winery, an offer he accepted after the immigration details were sorted. After being separated from his family eight months every year, it was an offer too good to refuse.
He already felt at home in Niagara, having made so many friends in the community over 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 Community 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 to return as a supervisor at Arterra Wines from March to October.
“No more working in the winter for me,” he said. He enjoys spending more time with his family and keeping in touch with his grandchildren, of whom he is so very proud.
There is much more for the men to talk about, including the many challenges local farms are presently faced with. They agree to get together for that discussion another time but for now there is much to think about and to be grateful for.
Neufeld Jr. had his arm around Teagan’s shoulders.
“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 also helps her mom care for their laying hens and loves cupping the warm eggs as they gather them on a cold winter day.
Her grandfather was passionate about farming but the special friendships he cultivated with his Jamaican employees will create a legacy he will long be remembered for.