Focus on the Grower: Steve Fernick

Steve Fernick, a long time grape grower in Grimsby, passed away on Friday June 3, 2011 in his 72nd year. Steve was a Director on the Grape Growers of Ontario Board of Directors for seven years and was very involved in the grape and wine industry in Ontario.

The grape growing industry has lost one of its champions. Steve Fernick, a life-long grape grower who served on the GGO Board of Directors since 2004, died June 3rdon the farm he grew up on, after a valiant struggle with lung cancer.

“He was born on the farm and died on the farm, as he wished,” nephew Doug Fernick says. “He really took the grape growing industry seriously and was proud of his involvement.”

Steve was born August 31, 1939 on the Grimsby farm his father had purchased 15 years earlier. Doug says the day Steve was born the doctor had come on his horse and buggy to see how Irene Fernick’s pregnancy was coming along. She told the doctor the baby wouldn’t be coming for another couple of days. As it turns out, Steve chose to arrive sooner. The doctor wasn’t even to the end of the lane way before he had to be called back. “He was caught with fishing net,” Doug laughs. Growing up, Steve and his siblings Walter, Anne and Bill, helped out on the family farm. All are still grape growers.

After leaving high school and beginning employment with the Ministry of Transportation as an electrician,

Steve and Walter would buy their own farm. A few years later, the two would have 100 acres spread over four farms. As he moved up the ladder at work, eventually becoming a district electrical supervisor responsible for an area encompassing Toronto to Fort Erie, Steve was also farming. “He put in a 100-hour week,” Doug recalls. “He worked harder in a year than some people do in a lifetime.” But he wasn’t complaining. “He had a real passion for farming.”

When he wasn’t working, he enjoyed building things and flying. He was an accomplished pilot who made several trips south, even owning two planes at one point. He built a home on the family homestead, but never moved into it. Instead he continued to live with his mother (who celebrated her 100thbirthday in late February) throughout his life. He built a motor home. He also put his skills to use on the farm developing a four-wheel drive system for his grape harvester. Doug says the manufacturer heard about it and came to the farm to check it out, eventually incorporating some of his ideas into their design. “He had some influence on the four-wheel drive hydro static system of the current day grape harvesters,” Doug says with pride.

After retiring, Steve became one of the original owners of 20 Bees Winery. Doug says he always felt, though it was never stated, that Steve’s motivation was to try and help his nephews who had their own farms, by providing them with an outlet for their grapes. “Unfortunately it didn’t work out.”  Around the same time, he became involved with the Grape Growers of Ontario, joining the Growers Committee in 2002. Two years later he was elected to the Board of Directors. “He was really proud to be on the Grape Growers’ Board,” Doug says.

Although he never married or had children of his own, he treated each one of his nieces and nephews as his own, Doug says. A real animal lover, he had several cats as pets, but his constant companion was his German Shepherd, Sheba. She could be seen sitting in the front seat of his truck quite often, Doug says. His girlfriend and companion was Helen Smerek, who had grown up a couple of houses down from his.

This last year represented Steve’s most challenging as he battled lung cancer. “He was extremely tough. He fought his cancer. But he never complained.”  His three siblings, five nieces and nephews, mother Irene, and his companion, Helen Smerek, survive him.

The Grape Growers of Ontario extend deepest sympathies to Steve’s family and friends and thank him for his support and commitment to the grape growing industry in Ontario throughout his lifetime.