New Zealand: Kentishman Hops

I tell myself a lie. I don’t need an alarm. The truth is I am an early riser. I wake up at 6:42am. Did I wake up naturally or did the noise of my co-workers moving around wake me? The hop harvest begins at 7am. There is only enough time to get dressed, to grab a coffee and report for duty in the shed. Guy and Krista, who own Kentishman Hops and run this show, are already there with a handful of others. We go through quick introductions and explanations. Tom has been working on the kiwi farms over the hill in Takaka. He is my cutting partner. Guy lets us know something important. “This job is done mostly by machines, you’re two of only a handful of people who will be able to put hop cutter on their C.V.”. Tom is who I spend almost all of my day with. Sometimes stood next to him, swinging a scythe like Grim Reapers of hops. Other times at opposite ends of a trailer, one of us cutting, the other pulling the vines in to the trailer. Tom’s got a strong beard and is wearing a Led Zeppelin hoody and this is enough for me to decide we will probably get along just fine. Then there are the tractor drivers, our link between the field and the machine. Ben, Dylan and Tim. Ben lives down the road in RIchmond and is learning to fly. Or he would be learning to fly, if there was any point. Which is why he is here, driving tractors instead. Dylan’s arms and legs are rippled like steel cables. He could hold up a bridge on his own. His is a confidence that suggests he could do any of these jobs like he’d been doing it for his whole life. Tim’s been on the road. He’s got an infectious enthusiasm, the kind you find with golden retriever puppies. He always seems so excited to find himself in the field. There are two more faces. Kat and Lilou who work in the machine room. Faces I hardly see at all over the first few days. We work at opposite ends of the process. In the beginning, all I know about them is their names and where they work.

“Let’s go cut some hops,” Guy says, leading Tom and I out in to the field. The first thing we must do is cut the base of the vines. A baseball bat with a curved blade swung at a downward angle in to the vine separates plant from ground. We cut through an avenue of vines. Sometimes the vine cuts back, the swing from the cut lashing across legs, wrists or if you get a good one, right across the face. Hop rash covers our legs, our wrists. Any exposed skin. Dylan drives his tractor in to the green. I climb up the ladder on the back of his trailer, on to a narrow wooden platform. Tom comes up behind me, together we pull up the safety frame. A metal fence high enough to stop us from falling off the back. Dylan drives though the first row of cut vines. The tail of the hop vine catches on a platform at the front of the trailer. Above our heads twin wires run the length of the garden. The huge, bushy tops of the vines are loaded with Motueka hops. Hidden deep in these tiny jungles are strings holding the vines up. The theory is; a simple backwards pull of a scythe to cut the string will encourage the whole plant to fall neatly in to the trailer below. The reality is a combination of hacking and slashing drops the vine like a coil in to the back of the trailer. The row comes down, the trailer fills. Tom and I climb down, release the safety. One of us shouts “clear.” Dylan responds by making his exit from the garden. The trailer disappears into the jungle of vines. Behind us Tim arrives with trailer number two.

The first time I see the yellow string separating the wire from the hop vine, I realise I have an opportunity to see the theory at work. I reach my scythe beyond the string and pull back. The string parts. The tail rests on the front platform. The forward motion of the tractor and gravity combine to drop the vine neatly in trailer, with its hop loaded head beneath my feet. This happens once in an entire row, if you’re lucky. Guy explains we’re not supposed to be cutting the Motueka hops first. This variety is the biggest, bushiest, nastiest hops to cut. He would have liked to ease us in gently with something a bit thinner but nothing else is ready yet and we have to get started. It takes Tom and I a while but we begin to find a rhythm. You watch the plant coming, seek out the string and snip. I’m sure there are mobile video games based on this simple motion of harvest. If the snip doesn’t work, or you can’t see the string you hack away, clearing some of the bush. The hack might go through the string but the plant still might not fall. The lateral vines have reached out along the wire, wrapping around. The plants twist around one another. The limbs corkscrew around the wire, pulling tight. We hack and we push and we pull and the plants come down.

A fuel line snaps on Ben’s tractor which stops us in our tracks. The rhythm is broken and I’m relieved to have any chance to stop and rest. Something else breaks inside the machine. Guy is immediately on the phone to mechanics. Someone is straight out to the machine. Someone else comes to solve the immovable tractor problem.  Someone else from Renaissance Brewery turns up to take away fresh green hops for their Kentishman XPA. A few weeks from now we will be able to sample the literal fruits of our labour in the local pub. Smoko comes and all I can think of is the Chats viral single, smoko. At no point do I feel the need to tell anyone to leave me alone. What I’m mostly thinking is how is it only smoko? We’ve been going for three hours but I feel like I could be done for the day. Tom and I are ushered in to the machine shed to sweep the floor and throw the debris on to the waste belts. There’s time for a quick cup of tea and bite to eat before we’re off again.

Back in the field Guy explains to us the challenge of the post row. The framework of wires are held up on wooden posts. Unfortunately that means some of the wires have a row of posts running the length of the garden. There’s no way to drive a tractor underneath. I jump down to the front platform and pull the tails of the vine across the trailer. Tom cuts as normal. We fill half a trailer on one side, then cross the garden to do the same on the far end of the opposite post row. In the end we have another full trailer. Guy doesn’t watch us for long. There seems to be something happening all of the time, everywhere, that needs his attention. We’re trusted enough to cut down the hops unsupervised. We cut, hack and slash. We pull, grunt and swear. Then Guy is back, “is there a problem guys?” Tom and I look at each other, “no, no problem.” “We need to get these trailers back in faster, especially after a break. The machine is sat there doing nothing.” Doing a post-row first was a mistake, one we don’t repeat. We pick up the pace in the centre rows, both of us cutting fills a trailer in no time and we’re back in a regular rotation. We buy enough time to cut the next post-row. Guy only comes back to tell us “one more trailer before lunch.” The countdown becomes a mantra.

After lunch we go again. We have to cut more bottoms. I start from the wrong end. I’m getting tired. On the platform I hear someone shout my name. I’d stopped cutting to look at the spider crawling up my leg. I brushed the spider off and shut down. Forgetting that over my head the vines would keep on coming. Today wasn’t even a hot day and I’ve struggled. Will I be able to do this for another five days? For six days a week, for another four weeks? The trailer reaches the end of the row. The garden is clear. Looking back small vines have been left tangled around the wire like forgotten tinsel after Christmas. Finally the first day is over. Only it isn’t over. Once the last vine has been fed through the machine we set to cleaning. Tom and I sweep up and load the waste belts. Then I have to go around the machines, pulling any loose hanging vines and branches out and sweeping out as much mess as I can. Then, finally for sure this time the first day is over. Renaissance left us a couple of boxes of beer for our hard work which went straight in to the fridge. We sit in the shed, cold beers in hand and go over the day with Guy and Krista. What we need to work on tomorrow to keep things running smoothly. Get the first trailers back to the machine room after breaks fast. Then it really is over. What remains of the day is mine.

A hard, physical day but I realise I’m happy. I have no work to take home, there’s nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow and I already know what I’ll be doing all day. An alpine range of purple clouds drifts across the orchard. The sun comes out and even at 6pm it’s summer holiday hot. I actually don’t know how I’ll cope in the dry hot days. In the shower I find I’ve got a leopard skin of bruises. The ones on my torso when I tug too hard and pull the scythe handle back in to my body. The ones on my legs I have no answer for. There’s enough time left to cook some dinner, do my dishes and then crawl in to bed, utterly exhausted. Outside I can hear the roar of the kiln. The fire burns through the night, the hot air sucking the remaining moisture from the hops. Cicadas buzz in the trees long after dark, and still beneath all this noise I can hear the sheep in the garden behind my van, chewing at the grass. Before I pass out I set my alarm for 6am. If I start tomorrow with breakfast and clean teeth there’s a chance the day might be a little bit easier.

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