New Zealand: Hop Harvest 2021

The mornings grow darker with autumn’s approach. I step out of the van in to the cold air. Light glows around the edge of the curtains of the two caravans parked next to me. Everyone is waking up. I have breakfast, make coffee, clean my teeth and turn in for the morning brief. We’re going to cut some Pacifica hops for a change. A chance to see how things might have been had they been ripe before the Motueka. Tom and I start well, we fill four trailers in an hour. I start cutting the bottoms of the next row. “The machine isn’t running,” Tom shouts from the other end. He’s right. The farm is eerily quiet, until the swearing starts. We stop what we’re doing. Once the hops are cut from the roots they begin to dry out. Guy doesn’t want vines hanging loose if we can help it. We wait for a tractor to return, or for someone to come back. Eventually Tim appears in the rear of the machine shed. “Smoko,” he shouts to us. We trudge back to the shed. “What’s going on?” we ask. Nobody knows. Something is broken. There is very little difference between the corporate world and farm life. Things break unexpectedly. The environment changes constantly. Nobody really knows what they’re doing, we’re just winging it. We wait almost two hours for things to start moving again. Tom and I fall behind. Suddenly we’ve got three tractors in the field with us which means nothing is going through the machine. We’re shouting at tractor drivers to help cut bottoms, desperately trying to get one on the way back before Guy comes to chase us. “Where’s my trailer?” he demands. “It’s coming, it’s coming,” we pull the safety and send him on his way. Trailers fill, the garden empties. Broken threads of yellow and white string flutter on wires in the wind like the torn bunting of an English summer fête caught in a storm. Exhausted again. How? How can I keep this going? In the shed at the end of the day Guy tells us rain is forecast for Monday. “Are you guys ok to work Sunday and have Monday off instead?” And so we go again.

The morning brief is simple. Go hard. No waiting for trailers in the machine room. We need to be pulling in between 30 and 40 fully loaded trailers. Tom and I have the responsibility of managing the field. We need to organise the drivers when they arrive. Make sure they have a way out once their trailer is full. We have to keep an eye on the posts, counting out the bays. How many bays to a trailer? How many bays to a row? Always thinking two tractors ahead. When will we have time to cut the next row of bottoms? Where do we put the next tractor? We drop 6 trailers in an hour. Only an hour? I’ve still got to work this hard for another 7 hours. After a few days I’m a wreck. Lifting my hands above my head gets difficult. Simple tasks like picking up the kettle to pour a cup of tea and cleaning my teeth require more time. The tractors don’t stop. We don’t stop. We’re getting it done, bringing in the numbers. Getting the logistics right. And then we find a wire is down. Some of the plants are on the floor. We send Ben’s trailer back with a message for Guy. Help! Over lunch Guy rigs up something which pulls most of the wire above the trailers. He swops out our scythes for machetes and we hack the plants in to the trailer. “That wasn’t so bad,” Guy says. Without us even seeing, he and the others have cleared the fallen plants in to another trailer and we’ve lost no time at all.

The days begin to bleed into one. Each day is the same. The garden is in a different place. The aroma coming from the plants as they’re cut down shifts. The Motueka hops were tropical, fruity. The Pacifica has a spicy, almost peppery note . The Wilamette are woody. The Wai-iti are sweet. Another brewery, Cassels, turn up with a film crew. Rain has fallen all through the night. Puddles stretch across the access ways. The vines are dripping. Mist rises from the gardens in the emerging sun. Water sprays off the plants and on to my glasses. This is today’s excuse. I can’t see a thing. In the end it’s easier to take them off and I never put them back on. The cameras join us in the garden. Following our trailer. I wish we’d had a few more days to practise, to at least look like we know what we’re doing. Maybe it’ll come out alright. “These are coming down like butter,” Tom says. He’s right, the Pacifica hops are making us look better by being thinner at the top. We can see the string easier and drop plants neatly in to the trailer. The film crew do a good job of staying mostly out of the way. They get what they need and disappear. Krista tells us they forgot to bring us some beers and loud tutting echoes around the shed. If I’m ever back in Christchurch, I’m owed a beer. I race Ben out of the machine shed. Whoever reaches the smoko shed first wins. The kettle or the microwave but never both at the same time. If Ben gets his pie in the microwave I lose two minutes of lunch.For a few days I put biscuits out. Guy tells me I’m already the crew mum. Doing my bit to take care of the team. I reach into my shirt pocket. “What have you got in there? More treats?” asks Kat. “I’m out of treats until Sunday, but I can give you hops.” Handing out a sprinkling of petals. Later I shake out my boots, full of hops. Everything has a fine coating of yellow dust. Everything I own smells of hops. Everything, everyone smells of hops.

In one garden Guy tells us there’s a mistake row. One side has Motueka, one side has Nelson Sauvin. We can’t bring both down at the same time. “You can get a tractor down there,” Guy tells us. I only know that he was right because we did. We get the trailer stuck on a pole. Back, forwards, back, forwards. The tractor tears through the wrong vines. Someone goes to grab the plant. “LEAVE IT!” I shout. Everyone’s shouting. Not at each other, but about the problems. We reach the end. Maybe a handful of Nelson Sauvin got in the trailer, maybe more but mostly it looks like it’s still on the wire. Tom is beginning to make cutting look easy. All I feel is tired. He reaches across my wire and cuts the plant ahead, giving me a few seconds grace before the next string reaches me. I hook my scythe behind the string and pull. Pulling down the string. Pulling the vine down the string. Cutting nothing. Not ideal. I mention this to Guy and he has the answer. “Sounds like it needs a sharpen.” He shows me once, I try. “Rub your thumb on the edge, feel anything?” I have no idea what I’m feeling for. “All you need is an edge on it,” Guy says. I think that’s what I can feel. Back in the field I still have problems. We try again. In the end it takes me watching Tom, who sharpens in a completely different way, for me to get it, with only 5 harvest days to go. At least now I can add “knows how to sharpen a scythe” to my C.V. as well.

We cut like hell through the Nelson Sauvin. It’s like trail cutting through a jungle, like I have any idea what that’s like. We’re dragging out four, five, six trailers a row. By smoko we’ve done three rows. Five to go. Setting targets becomes increasingly difficult. In the morning we talk about rows. Krista chips in through the day about the number of trailers like we can control how many hops are on each plant.The drivers want smaller loads. They’re struggling with the unload. This we can do but now the number of trailers has changed. The number of hops hasn’t. What is the best way to measure something you have no number for? Before lunch Guy says something about not cutting all the rows. After lunch I check and he says cut all the rows. At the end of the day we were not meant to cut all the rows. Krista struggles to fit the hops in the kiln. Now we know, at the end of the day slow down and Guy will tell us what Krista wants, or Krista will come out herself to check on our progress. Too many wires have been crossed. Nobody is getting enough sleep. We’ve worked hard this week, we’re tired. Things went wrong. As the last plant falls into the last trailer Tom gives the garden two middle fingers. This is about right.

There is one day where everyone gives up. It’s shit. It’s hard. It’s hop harvest. We’re out in the field for over 10 hours. Nobody is to blame. The Nelson Sauvin have been the worst. They’re thick, bushy but worst of all they like to cuddle. Vines wrap around each other, between plants, across rows. The cutting is sometimes easy, it’s the wrestling that comes later which is the problem. I end up shoulder deep at the back of the trailer, hacking wildly with scythe and machete, laughing manically all the while. Dylan hears me complaining about being hangry. I don’t ask him to, I don’t even think to, I think only about not killing all of us. He sends Tim back with the last of the jaffa biscuits. You are reading that correctly. There’s three left in the packet, one for Tim, Tom and I. Tom changes the words to songs to fit hops, cutting, and count downs. Three more trailers of hops on the wire, three more trailers of hops. Cut them down, send them off, two more trailers of hops on the wire. A reprieve comes. “We’ll take one more row and call it a day.” says Krista. The kiln full enough. Tom and I return to the field with heavy, tired arms. We swing, we cut, we swear. Vines are tangled around crosswires. A tiny birds nest comes down in one plant. There’s one more trailer to go. We take our one more row. We go into the machine room to do the final clean down. I scoop up piles of hop petals on to the waste belt. I bend down for another and the pile looks no smaller. After each portion removed, the mountain of petals remains unchanged. Bit by bit the waste is removed. Dylan and Tim pull the chords on their leaf blowers and finish the job.

On a day off Krista and Guy are in the shed, always working. “do you need a hand?” I offer, doing nothing important. “You can help pull out the hops if you don’t mind,” this isn’t a job I’d normally do. This is a first thing in the morning while I’m cutting through the bottoms of the first row. The first part is easy. Grab the handle and pull, jerk the matt out of the kiln on to the barn floor. Then while still pulling the matt, run across the barn. Now comes the tricky bit. Guy and Krista tell me three different times to unroll the hops and I’m looking at what they’re doing and not getting it. Eventually I click. It’s a push not a pull. Tipping the hops out of the matt that’s also a huge sack on to the barn floor. What happens next remains a mystery. Guy disappears to load the hops into bales. On another day, we’re treated to Marchfest in Nelson. An annual beer festival which once celebrated the harvest of hops and apples. 15 one off beers have been brewed by the local breweries around the Nelson-Tasman region and a little further beyond. What starts off as a pleasant afternoon drinking beers in the sun turns into a messy evening stumbling around in the dark, sloshing beers over the floor. We’re lucky in that we’ve been given the next day off to recover. I go nowhere, see no one.

I wake up in the night to find my hands in grip. My wrists are sore. My elbows feel as thought they belong to a professional tennis player. In the morning I am exhausted, fed up. How much longer can I do this for? Pukeko forage in the morning mist. Steam rises off the composting vines, leaves and branches. By smoko I’ve warmed up, hands are loose, tendons free, muscles moving. I can do it all day. Piwakawaka waft through the vines like seals at play in forests of kelp. In the evening I hear Krista shout “come on let’s go.” I assume she’s off somewhere with Guy and he’s dawdling. I don’t expect to see her cycling past with two rams trotting along behind her. The sheep munch through the weeds, through the lowest part of the vines, on any hops they can get their teeth into. They’re moved throughout the gardens, keeping them out of our way. After work we head in to the village, to one of many pubs claiming to be New Zealand’s oldest; the Moutere Inn. Renaissance have released their Kentishman XPA. From garden to glass, we’re able to enjoy a beer featuring hops cut by us on the first day of harvest. The gardens are cut away to reveal houses on hillsides, mountains down valleys. a scratchcard landscape revealing it’s secrets. The Moutere highway opens up, walls of green are torn down. Our surroundings become exposed. Loose string hangs from the framework like sheep’s wool on barbed wire. The harvest ends almost as soon as it started.

This was a good time, maybe it was too good a time. Things turned sour. A box of beer went missing from the shed. Nobody confessed to taking what wasn’t there’s to take. You think you know people but you don’t. We were all guilty by association. Our welcome outstayed. Guy and Krista did what they had to. They asked us all to leave. I was hoping for one more night. To get my electronic devices charged. To keep food in the fridge for another 12 hours. To have one more hot shower. Instead I drove out in the afternoon of the day after harvest’s end. One last night in Motueka and then I would drift towards Picton where a ferry would away to carry me back to the North Island. There is sadness in everyone’s eyes when I make my awkward goodbyes. Sadness that it’s over, we’re leaving. Chances are, to never meet again. I drove out of the farm under lead grey clouds that dumped nails of rain over the roof of the van.

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