It is a perfect Sunday evening, only a week away from the Peach Pickers Picnic. We’ve been distributing posters and dinner tickets to the 75-plus farms in Niagara-on-the Lake for about five weeks now.
I’m sitting on the edge of a flatbed jitney beside a bunkhouse surrounded by meticulously-kept orchards. We can hear the outbursts of an impromptu soccer game over a reggae soundtrack on a farm down the road. The tantalizing aroma of jerk chicken on the barbecue comes wafting over to where we are enjoying a respite from the intense humidity and heat of the past few weeks.
Four of the five men around the farm vehicle were unknown to me, but we were not strangers for long. Within minutes we were sharing photos of family life back home in Jamaica, hearing about their hopes and dreams – to get their mechanic’s licence, to finish the second storey of their house, to get their kids through university, to open a bakery back home when they retire.
One gentleman plays me a video of his five-year-old son swimming with him in the sparkling, spring-fed waters that flow down from the Blue Mountain peaks, right through his little farm in St. Thomas. That water is more “precious than gold” he tells me, as climate change and drought continue to threaten the Blue Mountain coffee production and farming across the island. The sound of his son’s laughter is what keeps him pressing on through the challenge of hard physical labour in the heat and his longing for family.
We discover we have mutual friends in churches back on the island and we leave 20 minutes later as friends, with phone numbers exchanged and directions to his house back in Jamaica.
Well-intentioned people have suggested there are more efficient ways to deliver tickets. Why try to visit so many farms personally when you could send it directly to their phones? It sounds so tempting, but then I remember – there are no shortcuts to investing in people’s lives, in building community, in making NOTL a safe place where every person is respected.
The Niagara Workers Welcome started 13 years ago as a few friendships that have grown deeper and more treasured over time. It began as a seed of gratitude expressed, with no expectation of a return. The unexpected friendships that have blossomed, both local and from the Caribbean and Mexico, from those tiny seeds, have transformed and enriched lives in so many ways.
It is exciting to observe the growth of community engagement as the NOTL Rotary Club, Shaw Festival, town council and many others are catching the vision. Together we are seeking ways to build connections and support farm workers, and by extension, the farms where they are employed.
Our little town has been declared the most welcoming community in Canada. We are certainly one of the most manicured, stunning destinations in Canada, offering every culinary delight, every wine lover’s dream. None of this would exist without the men and women from the Caribbean and Mexico who make this possible.
It is in our welcome to everyone and our caring that the true legacy of our town is being created.
The Peach Pickers Picnic is this coming Sunday, Aug. 11 from 5:30 to 9 p.m., on the site of the Wednesday SupperMarket. It’s the weekend of the Peach Festival, when we celebrate the fruit that brought people to NOTL to settle and farm for the last 200 years.
Come out to shake a few hands and enjoy the music. Farm workers will receive a free dinner.
The picnic is a grassroots effort and totally volunteer driven. All donations are gratefully accepted and can be made by e-transfer to firstname.lastname@example.org (password – welcome) or by cheque made out to Niagara Workers Welcome. Cheques can be dropped off at 2230 Four Mile Creek Rd. or can be received this Wednesday evening at the SupperMarket on Niven Road.