Vineyard workers play a vital role in the economic development of a sustainable agricultural sector.

South African vineyard workers have not always enjoyed all the support and recognition they deserve. Difficult working conditions, low wages and inadequate healthcare are some of the challenges they have had to face.

These are deserving issues and the wine industry has rallied behind its often underappreciated workforce. Several farms have gone all out to improve the working conditions and lives of their workers.

At Bosman Family Vineyards, located in Hermanus and Wellington, attention to detail is at the core of producing quality wine. From grafting vines to picking grapes, much of the work is done by hand. The estate prides itself on ensuring that the quality of fruit is prioritised. But besides being committed to producing excellent wines, Bosman Family Vineyards is committed to ethical practices that promote sustainable farming and uplift the communities in which they work.

In 2008, a joint venture between the Adama Workers Trust and Bosman Family Vineyards resulted in eligible workers receiving 430 ha prime farming land. This landmark Black Employment Equity deal, as well as other initiatives such as Bosman Family Vineyards’ ethical and sustainable methods of producing and trading wine, resulted in an official Fairtrade certification in 2009. The Adama Workers Trust provides vineyard workers and their families with a 26% stake in the Bosman Family Vineyards. It also includes the comprehensive transfer of skills and numerous social projects.

Ruth Faro is the chemical store manager at the Bosman Family Vineyards nursery and one of her dreams is to become a viticulturist. “Bosman Family Vineyards provides a good foundation to start on that journey,” she says. “They have the whole value chain of the industry, from the nursery right through to the cellar.” She says the significance of the Adama Workers Trust is that everyone is treated equally and that ensures a better tomorrow for everyone.

Ruth is also one of the farm’s youth mentors. “If I weren’t working in the wine industry I’d be a social worker or a facilitator who works with young people and guides and motivates them.” After completing a course in people-centred community development through Unisa, Ruth enrolled in the Pinotage Youth Development Academy (PYDA), an NGO which honed her vocational and personal development skills. She mentored PYDA students last year and serves on the alumni committee.

Ruth also completed the Skills Fusion programme facilitated by Vinpro and learnt about plant production among other things. “I did the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) course and also learnt about pruning,” she says.

A solid work ethic is required to ensure success in the vineyard. Ruth says good teamwork, regular communication with the workers and excellent leadership are also essential. According to the Government of Western Australia’s department of training and workforce development, vineyard work consists of performing routine tasks such as cultivating and fertilising soil. Vineyard workers also perform work related to vines such as planting, training, pruning grape vines and spraying pesticides. In addition, workers’ skills are often enlisted to ensure that the grapes are harvested in ideal conditions for the winemaker. They also erect trellis and irrigation equipment and often hand-pick grapes or use machines during harvest.

A typical day in the vineyard starts in the very early hours of the morning. “You get on the bakkie then drive to the vineyard where the team is working,” Ruth says. “Usually each person gets ready to work in different rows. We get our first break at about 09:00 and then again at lunchtime.”

Ruth gets home at about 18:00 and then enjoys spending time with her family. She says the most interesting time of the year is during pruning and harvesting. “Each person has their own preferences but there’s something about the harvest that makes everyone excited.”

But the harvest is also a challenging time for the team, Ruth says. “That’s when the communication between vineyard workers and the winemaker must be constant. And often you won’t agree on certain things.”

Ruth says that it’s critical that workers learn about farming practices and viticulture. “The vineyard goes through stages. In winter you get dormancy, a sleeping period. Mid-June to August is pruning time. The period around September is called bud-break and that’s when we do suckering, which involves taking out unnecessary shoots. It all depends on the quality and quantity in the vineyard.”

Ruth says they have various methods to mitigate the challenges presented by the drought. “We use DFM moisture probes to measure water and irrigate strictly according to the readings.” This method ensures that the roots and top zone get enough water.

The harvest season promotes a cohesive team spirit among the workers. “We have this tradition during harvest where we divide all the workers into groups and give each group a different name or colour,” Ruth says. “The team that brings in the biggest harvest wins a prize. It’s rewarding for me to see the excitement on workers’ faces. It also motivates the other teams to do better.”

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