“Well, my visa is only good for a year so there are only a few possibilities for me to stay longer. I could stay if I get a work sponsorship, but they don’t know what my profession is in New Zealand. If I were to work in agriculture for 3 months, I could possibly extend my visa for up to 3 months… Or, I could just get married.” I would throw in there at the end with a playful smile. “Maybe I’ll just go work at a vineyard for a while and keep my options open.” Working at a vineyard; it sounded so romantic, so distant from my past experiences. I love wine, so why wouldn’t I enjoy the process of making it?
Well I got my chance to test out that theory while living in Wanaka. I had gone the entire summer based out of Nelson, located in an area renowned for its wine, without working on a vineyard (or working at all, actually), but finally had an opportunity to give it a go in Central Otago – another favorite region for NZ wine. I got the job through the Wanaka Job Agency (a rather unimpressive organization run by a lady who seems to reference whatever CV’s happen to be located on the top of her pile) after a bit of pestering and reminding that I was still in the area and looking for work!
Four van loads of people met outside the job agency at 7am on our scheduled day, only to find out that the vineyard we were headed to was closed for work that day. Though clear in the morning, it had rained overnight and the trucks could not get up a muddy hill on site. We were told to return the next day in hopes that it would dry up a bit so we could do our jobs.
We piled into the vans that drove us out to Cromwell to the vineyard we were working. The manager explained where we would start with pruning the grapes and told us where to pick up our bucket and snips. We filed down the rows of vines and began clipping the vines and gathering the grapes bunch by bunch. We were told to work with someone on the opposite side so that we didn’t have to reach through and could be more thorough, but most people seemed to fan out and skip the area on the other side of you. Therefore, I got used to reaching through the vines and clearing an entire area anyway.
Some people disregarded the instructions about where to prune, and not to duck through the row of vines. We were, therefore, scolded by the manager and gathered up for a chat. We were to wait until someone told us which row to prune, and follow instructions for 6 people only to work in each row. We were to work our way through that row until it was completely void of grapes, then come out the other end and see where to go next. There were a few tractors that followed us pulling trailers with giant bins on them. Once our buckets filled up, we were to dump them into the bins and continue on. Usually there were people walking with the bins so all you had to do was pass your full bucket through the vines and they handed you an empty one. I made an effort at first to fill my buckets all the way up before dumping them, so I would know how many buckets of grapes I had collected. I counted to about twenty before morning tea, then decided it was more efficient to dump the buckets as the tractor drove by, even if they weren’t completely full yet. I was starving by morning tea, so ate one of my pb&j sandwiches in order to last until lunch.
By lunchtime I had tested out how sharp my snips were by accidentally getting my hand instead of the vine. I was dirty and a bit tired, but the morning had gone quickly and I didn’t mind continuing into the afternoon. We were becoming more efficient as a group and finally seemed to be working the way we were instructed to, for the most part anyway. We finished off the big block of grapes we stared on in the morning, and moved on to another block for the rest of the day.
|Lena, getting to work|
I got to chatting with a few people throughout the day, one of whom was Lena, who I had met the day before when we were sent home with no work. We live in the same direction so walked partway home together and seemed to get along. There was one guy I started talking to who I think had worked at the vineyard for a while. He didn’t arrive in the vans with the rest of us, but instead was already at the vineyard when we got there. He made a comment to me about how I must have done this before and I asked why he thought that. Apparently I was rather quick and efficient with my pruning and he was impressed that this was my first day.
At some point in the afternoon, however, I started slowing down significantly. My left forearm was hurting and I couldn’t make out exactly why. I was using the snips in my right hand, since I am right handed, but it was my left forearm that was hurting. The grapes I was catching in my left hand weren’t THAT heavy! I eventually worked out that it was the twisting motion I was doing while reaching through the vines, catching the grape bunches, and twisting my hand to pull them back through. I switched hands to prune with my left, and continued about my work. I worked a bit slower when cutting with my left hand, as I did not trust it as much. My forearm continued to ache every time I twisted it the wrong way and the afternoon seemed to last for ages. Finally we were called in and thanked for working an extra-long day. We had worked out there for 10 hours and apparently they had asked a couple people if we wanted an afternoon tea break and they said ‘no.’ I don’t remember being asked whether or not I wanted one! Ah well, my day was over and it was time to go home and research vineyard work injuries.
According to the World Wide Web, over the course of the first 6 hours or so, I had developed a repetitive motion or repetitive strain injury along the lines of carpel tunnel syndrome. They are common in vineyard workers – particularly ones who don’t receive frequent breaks to divide up the activity. For the next two weeks, I struggled to do simple tasks that required a twisting motion with my left hand. I could do things like rock climbing – since pulling or pushing felt fine – but washing dishes was painful! I didn’t go bug the job agency lady since I didn’t think I could handle another day on the vineyard so soon, so I focused on finding other jobs. Before I knew it, the vineyards were through with pruning and no longer looking for workers.
Though I’m happy to have the experience, and I can say that I was good at my job, I don’t mind that I only had one day on the vineyard. Three months might have been a little much for my forearm to take, and I haven’t seriously been looking into extending my stay anyway. I did learn, however, that working on a vineyard is not quite as romantic as it might sound.