Last week I took readers of the The Local to a mountaintop, high up in the clouds of St. Catherine, Jamaica, with Uton and Linnette Bell. Since that experience in 2008, I have had the privilege of visiting the Bells both in Jamaica and at their home in Niagara many times.
This past October, I enjoyed a lively time of reminiscing around their kitchen table in Niagara Falls, joined as well by Tony, a former coworker.
With the three of them around the table, the memories flowed effortlessly, vacillating between laughter and moments of serious reflection.
Uton offered us a bit of background to his early experience in Canada.
When the Seasonal Agricultural Work Program began in the mid 1960s, Abe Epp hired two men from Jamaica. Impressed by their work ethic and willingness to learn, he hired four more men in 1968. One of them was Uton Bell. At that time, the main part of the Epp farm was located at the corner of Lakeshore Rd. and Firelane 2, with the two bunkhouses situated directly behind Abe and Eleanore Epp’s home.
The work was hard, but they enjoyed the friendly atmosphere. Mr. Epp even took the time to help Uton learn how to ride a bike.
“If we worked late, there would be hot TV dinners waiting for us when we got back to the house. Man, we had never heard of TV dinners before. We really looked forward to that after a long day of work. Mrs. Epp used to wash our bed linens for us back then too. All we had to do was put it in bags on our doorstep on Saturday morning and she would pick it up, wash it and bring it back to us,” says Uton.
“Every morning in fruit-picking time, there would be hot coffee waiting. Coffee and donuts. If you didn’t drink coffee, they would have pop for you. By then, there was about 16 of us.”
“And a good thing about him too,” Tony added, “He would always find work. Even if he didn’t have work, he would have us picking up stones, whatever, because he knows we wanted the hours.”
“With a farmer and an employee it’s a bond together, they work together in a friendly relationship,” says Uton. “The worker knows that he would like to achieve his goals — a house to build, a family to raise, and he wants to do his best for the farmer, so he can go continue on each year. That binding of love, that joy that he can have, that we can smile and talk to each other… They can share a common bond together, I believe that with all my heart. It works out good for both the farmer and for the worker to know that he is helping his family in Jamaica. I believe that this is what can happen.”
They have to build that bridge together, says Uton with passion. “It’s unity. It’s strength, it’s the binding of a greater relationship.”
If a farmworker doesn’t enjoy working with a farmer, “then it’s not going to help. They have to enjoy working together.”
Linnette had been bustling around the kitchen, and now she sat down to join us, coffee in hand, and bringing us back to the story of how they came to Canada.
Sky-rocketing inflation, and the collapse of local markets in Jamaica due to globalization, made it clear to them both that they should accept Abe Epp’s offer to sponsor them to come to Canada. On a bitter cold winter’s night in 1975, they drove up to the tiny farm house on Concession 1 with their four children shivering in the back seat.
“We were completely unprepared, no winter clothes, nothing!” Linnette recalled.
The farmhouse was dark and cold when they arrived, not at all what she had expected. They all huddled together for warmth, and the next morning asked the Epps to help them find warm winter clothing and bedding.
By spring they had settled comfortably into the little farmhouse, with the children enrolled in Virgil Public School.
They walked every week to the library in the Old Town, and came back loaded down with books, a privilege that was unavailable in their tiny mountain community back home. On Sunday mornings, they enjoyed the services at the Niagara Fellowship Chapel on Concession 2.
Uton picked up where his wife left off. “Things began to change in the late 70s. Many of the farms began to expand, now that they had a work force they could depend on.”
There were some good farmers and there were some other kinds of farmers, he says. “Sometimes the farmers in the next orchard would come and spray us while we were working or having lunch. Our food, clothes, everything covered with pesticide. Some would apologize, but others just swear.”
He elaborates on some of the challenges of farming in those days. “I think fruit farming, such as peaches is one of the…” He hesitates to ponder his next words. “Peaches are one of the most discouraging fruits you can ever go in to.”
Timing is everything, he adds. “So many times Mr. Epp would send his own crew out to help other farmers who were running behind. Maybe the weather warmed up too fast. Maybe it would rain. We would go help the other farmers pick and then we would fall behind ourselves. Sometimes the entire orchard would be lost because we were one day late in picking our own crop. The peaches get soft so quickly. Timing is everything,” he emphasized.
After eight years of working for the Epps, Uton took a higher paying position at a manufacturing plant in Stoney Creek. With their four children, Monica, Dave, Garfield and Sophia, planning to attend university or college, it was necessary to make the move. Despite the change in employment, they continued to invite the Epps to important occasions, such as their children’s weddings and their own anniversary celebrations.
After he retired from the factory in 2003, Uton returned to work once again for the Epp farm. By then it had become one of the largest peach farms in Canada, employing well over 100 men during harvest.
“It was a challenge for us for sure. We all worked hard, including the Epp family. I have to say that on our farm – if we tell Idy (Epp) we have a washing machine or dryer not working, she has it fixed and running by the end of the day.”
Uton was hired as a supervisor, but he was also an important support for the Jamaican employees. He would take them to the doctor, bring them phone cards, and help them connect with family members when a visit to the hospital was required.
He also had to deal with issues involving the Jamaican Liaison Service. He shakes his head when describing the complicated relationship he had with the liaison officers, and the lack of support the men and women experienced when situations arose.
When Mr. Epp began shipping library books to Jamaica about 15 years ago, Uton helped to facilitate the deliveries to rural schools. On several occasions, he organized transportation on the island for visiting members of the Epp family.
They continue to stay in touch with Abe Epp, regularly checking in on him to see how he is doing.
Now Uton and Linnette are both retired, and enjoying life in Jamaica for a few months each year. They are a close-knit family, despite the distance that separates them. All their children contribute in significant ways to the communities in which they now live.
Their son Dave is the only one who still lives in Niagara. Although he has a busy life juggling family responsibilities, and a job at the Niagara Region, he continues to support the men and women on the farms in practical ways. For the past 14 years, he has been on the music team at the (Caribbean Workers Outreach Project) church services. You may also recognize him playing saxophone at the Peach Pickers Picnic.
Last year Dave delivered some reflective jackets for farmworkers to a temporary storage space in the old Virgil Public School. He and his wife Claudeen marvelled when we gave them a tour of the impressive Bikes for Farmworkers workshop in the basement.
It was also a trip back in time for him, recalling many fond memories of starting a new life in Canada, and making friends at the school. He particularly enjoyed reading the names accompanying the handprints, which were painted on the walls in an effort to brighten up the space. Those same halls were more than a little spooky to an 11-year-old back in 1975, he says.
Our coffee cups empty, the conversation started to wind down.
Uton looked thoughtful as he studied the faces in a 1968 photo of the crew at the Epp farm.
“I’m the only one left out of all the (Jamaican) guys Mr. Epp started with. They’ve all passed on,” he says. “We were so sorry when his wife Eleanore passed away. It’s hard, you know. We were at his house just the other day. He was going to the grave to put some flowers on it, and he says as soon as he gets there, he was going to tell her that we come by to visit.”
The seeds of respect and friendship planted so many years ago have weathered droughts, tough years on the farm, and incredible gains and losses to finally arrive in their senior years together.
A favourite proverb our Jamaican friends love to quote: “ A good friend is better than pocket money.”
I know two men who would agree.