Beamsville grape grower Warren Saunders recently celebrated his 90thbirthday. The GGO sat down with Warren, his wife Ivy and their children Ann-Marie and Leslie at their 17-acre farm to find out what changes they’ve seen in the industry.
How did you get started in farming?
Warren: When I was younger, about 12 years old, I used to go and pick raspberries with my parents. I was born in Hamilton and enjoyed going to pick during the season. When I was in my late teens, I worked in Stoney Creek on Red Hill on the House’s farm when they needed help.
When I was around 21, I started working for Stelco, was there for 42 years. Shortly after starting at Stelco, I bought some land in Ancaster. We had a vegetable garden there that my father would farm and then sell the produce.
When I met Ivy, we married in 1963 and then we moved here with our baby in 1965. There was already some mixed farming— fruit trees and grapes.
Ivy: We pulled out most of the fruit trees, planted some French hybrids in the 1980s and planted Vinifera in 1990. Today, we have Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.
What keeps you going at 90 years?
Warren: Good health. I watch what I eat; I stay active. I don’t sit on the couch and watch TV.
Ann-Marie: He didn’t eat junk food as a kid.
Warren: I always ate vegetables. I still cut the lawn.
Leslie: He still spends some time in the fields, though not as much as in previous years.
How does your family help with the business?
Ann-Marie: Mom did most of the work on the farm when they first moved here as Dad was still working full-time at Stelco.
Warren: I worked three shifts and had 2 days off a week. My time on the farm was limited to those two days off.
Ann-Marie: They would also go to farmer’s markets. Mom was instrumental in this; they’ve probably been to most of the markets in southern Ontario. As kids, we would help out, especially during harvest. Leslie’s doing a lot of the viticulture work today.
What do you see as the most significant changes in the industry?
Ivy: The move towards higher quality wines and VQA standards that help the industry compete more globally. Before VQA, we sold the Labruscas and French Hybrids to juice factories and wine companies. Today those juice factories are gone and wineries now use mostly Vinifera.
Ann-Marie: Recently we removed our remaining Labruscas, which is kind of sad because it’s a part of the history of Niagara. When we moved here, those vines were around 45 years old; at pull-out they were about 80 years old. They were great, almost self-reliant and could grow anywhere.
Leslie: Vinifera, they need more attention, as they’re more susceptible to disease. Having French Hybrids was a good transition, since management is much the same as the Vinifera.
Ivy: Warren spent time at the Vineland Research Station learning and talking to other farmers. That’s one thing you can always count on: your fellow farmers are always helpful.
Warren: They’re always coming up with something new to make it easier for the farmer. Like mechanical pickers to do what we used to do by hand.
Ivy: We’re now moving back to hand picked, as some processors want this.
Ann-Marie: Farming expectations are also different depending upon what the processor wants. Brix is no longer the only determining factor. Fortunately a few wineries and winemakers have come to know our farm and grapes so we’ve done pretty well. We always try to grow to the best we can.
If you were to give one piece of advice to a new grower, what would it be?
Ivy: Make sure you have a contract. It sure is jarring when you think they’re sold, and to then find out they don’t need your grapes.
Warren: Make sure you walk into it with your eyes wide open.
Ivy: It may look romantic on the outside, but you have to be prepared to put in a lot of hard work. Some people think that as farmers we’re just sitting on the porch with our feet up.
Any plans to sell the farm and lead a simpler life?
Warren: I would hate to move. I love my place; I really love living up on that hill.