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There is a lot more to the Vendanges than the Harvest


There is a lot more to the Vendanges than the Harvest

Following our story on cotton production and harvest in the southwestern United States, we decided to find out about the tradition of harvest in another part of the world: namely, France. The famed grape harvest in the Beaujolais region of France was worth participating in for an American student; but, what he learned about “harvesting fruits” became a good lesson for all of us. Essentially, harvesting fruit of labor requires another sort of heavy labor. The ‘Vendanges’—the French word for the grape harvest—comes with its own set of physical and mental challenges—challenges that can only be met by working in a team and staying focused on the goal.
 
The grape harvest in France - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)The grape harvest in France - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)Our team at Treasures of Wonderment asked Alexander de Groot, living in the United States to share with us his story of grape picking.  “I moved to France from 2005 to 2008 to experience French culture and to improve my French. Moving to another country for a few years was a wonderful experience for me. Since I was in the Beaujolais region of the country, I thought that it would be great to experience being part of the French grape harvest—a harvest that is a famed part of French tradition. I decided that I definitely had to try it. I called Madame Coquard of the “Domaine de la Terriere” in the village of Létra to sign up for the complete ‘Vendanges’.”

What is the complete ‘Vendanges’?  “It is 12-days of grape picking. For twelve days, the workers helping with the harvest live at the farm, wake-up early, get to the fields early, and, if they can, get to bed early. The work is back-bending and painful and, sometimes, unbearable. Fortunately, for each day that you get through it you get paid well, you get housed well, and you eat very well. “

Commune of Létra, Canton du Bois-d'Oingt - Region of Rhône-Alpes - Elevation: 275–727 m (900–2,390 ft) - Population: 757 (2004)Commune of Létra, Canton du Bois-d'Oingt - Region of Rhône-Alpes - Elevation: 275–727 m (900–2,390 ft) - Population: 757 (2004)I wasn’t really sure what exactly ‘Vendanges’ was the first year that I went. But I discovered very quickly that it was hard work. It was also a fun experience that is shared with other people. You spend almost the entire time in the fields in a crouched or squatting position, your back is bent the entire time. The slope of the vineyard is upward so while you are doing this work you are also walking, sometimes almost crawling, up-hill. Sometimes the climb feels absolutely vertical. The first few days are the worst because your body is getting used to the labor of the day. We took a lot of Aspirin to get through those days. But the days that follow aren’t necessarily better, it’s just that by then you begin to learn to distract yourself from thoughts about break-time, to get to know your partner (we work in 2-person teams), to sing songs, to create games where we compete to be the first to finish with a row, we start to help each other, we start to accept help, and as each day goes by it gets easier and easier because you’re part of the team, your learning to support others, to accept support, and your learning to just focus on the goal.

Tipping the grapes into the Hotte - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright Tipping the grapes into the Hotte - Photo by Wilf James © CopyrightAt the end of the days we didn’t say ‘Only 10 or 8 more days of grape picking,’ we started counting the rows and the number of fields. Our back muscles were so sore and we felt such pain and just the idea that we had to go out there for another 9 or 10 more days was not a pleasant thought.“

Did people ever quit or leave the ‘Vendanges’ early? “Yes, it happened once or twice. But most people stay and see it through. I think that at some point, if you’ve been there more than two or three days, we really just begin to care for each other and sometimes that is the only reason to stay and to get through it. You don’t want to let each other down or leave the work to someone else. But we understood when people had to leave. 

On the up-side, the pay is very decent.  It was a great way for me to improve my French. And there were people from diverse places of the world—such as, England, Germany, Denmark, countries in Africa, and ‘Ile de Reunion (The Reunion Island near Madagascar).’  It was exciting to meet new people and to get to know people so quickly because you are living together and having this intense experience. In the end, I thought there were more positive points than negative ones and that made me want to go back for the following year.”

Using a pair of secateurs to cut the grapes.Using a pair of secateurs to cut the grapes.Who works in the fields picking the grapes?  Alex continued “There were about thirty people. We do this work at the end of the summer, carrying garden scissors called ‘secateur’ and a plastic bucket. The people are generally strong enough not to fall down the hill while squatting or crouching and with a strong enough sense of humor so that when that bucket that you filled with grapes starts rolling down the hill you can pick it up and keep going.”

Grape carrier - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)Grape carrier - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)We had so many questions to ask Alexander. What was the average day like at the 'Vendanges'?  “Our days began at 7:00 a.m. We worked from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and then 1:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Some vineyards are close to the farm and some are adjacent to where we slept. We had to be out of the farmhouse and on the tractors by ten minutes to eight in the morning. Sometimes this was really hard because of the pain we were feeling. It wasn’t unusual for people to come running out of the house still putting on their pants because they couldn’t get out of bed that morning due to the pain in their backs.

The grape carrier dumps the grapes in the bins ready to go to the farm. The grape carrier dumps the grapes in the bins ready to go to the farm.The grape leaves are covered with moisture when we get out early in the morning so all wear a rain coat to start the day. Actually for a couple of days we had hard rain and cold days. This made it difficult for us. All around you could hear people exclaiming that they weren’t going to work that day. We all were passing around Aspirin and just beyond ourselves with the thought of the misery that the day might bring. We just weren’t used to working hour after hour in those conditions. The French people practicing their English with me, would exclaim at the end of the day, something like (but, worse) ‘stupid grapes!’ and, then, either laugh or sigh.

We would break at noon and have a fabulous lunch every day. Breakfast consisted of a large bowl of hot chocolate: that was served with toast and jam. At breakfast the dining area was virtually silent. A couple of times people came in singing and nearly got tossed out. Tempers were high in the morning because it was too much to think about going to the fields.

Tractor and trailer carrying the grapes - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)Tractor and trailer carrying the grapes - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)At lunch time we would eat for 45 minutes and get 45 minutes of siesta. I remember shutting my eyes to rest and all I could see were grapes and I was not the only person experiencing this. When you are busy in the vineyards cutting chunks of grapes all day for days, it’s all that’s on your mind; it’s hard to imagine anything else. All we thought about were how many more grape vines we had to cut before the ‘Vendanges’ was over. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners were great though!
 
Grape shower - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)Grape shower - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)At the end of the day after dinner we would go play a fun game of ‘Pétanque’ (bocce balls) or just sit around. Just sitting around and doing nothing was almost as exciting as being on a roller-coaster or something. To be able to sit in a chair and know that you didn’t have to move was  exhilirating thing. When you work for eight hours picking rows and rows of grapes, rows as big as two or three football fields, squatting using a ‘secateur' (garden cutter), trying to not think about the pain or about lunch breaks and a delicious meal or siesta to come, sitting around and joking and laughing together was this great thing.

Toward the end of the 7th day, you try to become as creative as you can to forget the pain. Some workers sing while working to forget the pain but it's not just a physical pain, there is also a mental pain that comes along because when you are not used to this intensive labor or kind of activity it is really hard. Often, I was singing nonsense songs, Christmas songs or just about anything flying through my head.

Petanque player - Painting by Gil Pires - Petanque is the latest branch on the enormous tree of jeu de boules. Probably created in 1907 or 1910 in La Ciotat by Jules le NoirPetanque player - Painting by Gil Pires - Petanque is the latest branch on the enormous tree of jeu de boules. Probably created in 1907 or 1910 in La Ciotat by Jules le NoirWe worked in two-partner teams. One team per row. Some workers would compete and race against each other.  I participated too in a couple of races of who could cut a row of grapes the fastest going up and down the vineyard. Because there would be about forty rows per vineyard and you would have to cut always going up the row and then all the way back down the second row to be done. I decided to work very hard because it made the time go by faster and stopped me from thinking about the pain in my back and legs. I helped a few people and wanted to be a champion by being a liberator to the people who were too slow but I must admit that a couple of times people had to come help me because it’s really tough. The best times in the field were when we could joke and share stories with our partners.“

How are the grapes collected and processed?  “Someone has the job to, actually carry a large bucket (called a ‘hotte’) strapped to his back and go around the workers yelling ‘sceau’ (bucket). He comes to you. He walks up and down the hill all day. I did this a couple of times. You empty your bucket into his “hotte” (bucket) and then he goes to empty it into a huge metal bin sitting on the trailer ready for the tractor to take it away.

Grape VineyardGrape VineyardWhat happens to the grapes at the end of the day? "The Coquard family makes its own wine so they keep all the grapes at the farm. There is a hole in the floor of the barn where they pour the grapes picked during the day. These go into the basement where there are two rows of huge in stainless steel vats (bins). The grapes are pressed there but the workers don’t generally get to see much more of the process than that.

Does the “Vendanges” always last 12-days? “They are pretty accurate when they said it would be done on such date. They really know their business. The second year that I was there we finished a day earlier…and we still got full-pay.

Grape picker - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)Grape picker - Photo by Wilf James © Copyright (click on photo to enlarge)No one could do that work for the whole year, that’s for sure. It was important that we work very hard each and every day nonstop because there is a dead line to harvest the grapes before they go bad and there are a lot of fields to finish before that date.  And, if the grapes go bad that’s a lot of money lost for the farmers. That’s their annual income.”

It looks like doing the ‘Vendanges’ is a quite an adventure but what is the thing that could get anyone through such hard work?  “HUMOR…. Some people could really tell great stories. Some people had great jokes. Sometimes the French would just call out, “Alex! ‘stupid grapes!” Whatever it was, being able to laugh helped us to get through the day.  Really, no matter what everyone is a winner when it comes to getting through that kind of work. We were one big team and we really got to know and treat each other like family.  We could all relate to the same hardship and we really learned to be there for each other.”

Grape pickersGrape pickersHarvesting cotton crops seems to be much easier these days because of all the heavy machinery. How come the French farmers are not using machines to pick the grapes?  “Picking the grape crops by hand is part of French tradition but I’m sure there is more into it. Fortunately, we were paid very well for the work—around 600 Euros for the 12 days of grape harvest—plus, they also provided delicious meals and lodging. The farmers treat the laborers really well. Like I said, its one big family sharing the good and bad times of what French grape harvest is all about. I have really good memories of my time spent there.”

Bourg of Letra in Beaujolais, FranceBourg of Letra in Beaujolais, FranceIt is still difficult to understand why would not they use heavy duty equipment to do grape picking automatically instead of manually?  “I have no real answer for that but that is a good question. Some places in France and Switzerland use machinery but not sure for what purpose. It might depend on the slope of the land; or the expense of the machinery, or even the attachment to traditional methods for harvesting the grapes. I don’t know. Farmers in France are not rich. They are living tough times, our days. The plants are like small trees going up the slope and wires are holding them. Also, the land is uneven and very muddy at times of terrible weather. It rains a lot. There is also a strong tradition of keeping the old ways in France; so, it might be that machinery is not wanted in some places.  It’s hard for me to answer this question. But I think tradition and money could be the strongest reason in some places. I really don’t know.”

Old photo of the Vendanges (click to enlarge)Old photo of the Vendanges (click to enlarge)It sounds like a perfect outdoor job for students. Are women invited to do the ‘Vendanges’, too or is it a man thing?  “No, there are many women picking grapes, too. Most of the workers are in their early 20's. Abut 75% of them are between the age of 18 and 24 years old. And, the people come from different parts of the world. One person worked there because he lives in the area so that’s easy. A man called ‘Simon’ was born and raised in Rwanda but resides Normandy (North-East France) where he lives today. He fled Rwanda during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide that killed his entire family. He collected all his belongings and left the country as quick as he could. He loves doing the ‘Vendanges’ in the Beaujolais. I got along very well with him and I think about him often. I met Simon two years in a row at the Coquard’s farm. I kind of miss him. Another friend of mine was German medical student getting ready to go to India to do medical research. There were men and women and everyone had a story worth hearing and thinking about.

GrapesGrapesIs there any special celebration that marks the end of the ‘Vendanges’?  “Yes, there is, what we call “La Fête des Vendanges” (a big harvest celebration.)  All the French workers sang traditional songs very loud. I could not sing along because I did not know the lyrics but I had fun just watching them having a great time.”

Thank you so much Alexander for taking the time to share with us your life experience doing the 'Vendanges'. We have just one more question for you if you don’t mind. What impressed you the most about the experience besides the good money and the back-breaking labor?  “It’s interesting that you ask me this because when I went to the ‘Vendanges’, I was expecting only French people there and I was surprised to see how international. It’s a great way to make friends from everywhere. We are all the same, after all. People at the farm are kind, generous and very disciplined because the work needs to be done on time. I love working and living with so many different people when there is a purpose in life. It’s amazing what people can do together. Everyone should experience this. It was really good for me to meet a bunch of random people and get to know them so quickly and you talk and share a lot about each other when you are out there cutting the grapes trying to cheer each other up. You cry, joke and laugh together.  All in all, it was a very special time in my life and I have great memories. I was able to be a part of the French tradition but really I learned much more about life, being human, and achieving a goal together. There’s a lot more to the ‘Vendanges’ than the harvest.” Alexander replied.

Photos by Wilf James © Copyright (http://www.flickr.com/photos/wilfjames)

 

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