Posted from Genoa, Wisconsin, United States.
On the morning of June 9 we arrived at our first Help Exchange, a vineyard in Genoa (pronounced “jen-OH-ah”), Wisconsin, population less than 300. The owners created their vineyard in 2004 as a hobby, but it takes as much time and effort as a full-time job, probably more. There are about 760 vines, equaling two acres, as well as a view of the Mississippi River. They grow red and white grapes and sell them to other wine producers. (No wine is produced at this location as of now, but this may change in the future.) Since it usually takes about five years from the first planting for the grapes to be at a high enough standard to use, they’ve spent the past few years perfecting and honing this operation.
Our first day was spent tying the nine rows of vines to metal support posts in the ground and elevated wires, so that the vines would grow in the appropriate direction, and also removing grape vine suckers (which do exactly what their name implies – steal water/nutrients from the trunk before it reaches the outer branches). This wasn’t hard work, but it was a lot of tying knots.
Our task the next day was to pick strawberries (yay!) and weed the strawberry patch (not yay). Although it was cold and wet, we had good rain jackets so we forged ahead. We picked about 8 quarts of berries (some of which turned into a delicious pie later that day) and more than an overflowing wheelbarrow of grass and other weeds. That night we went to the big city – La Crosse – for a little dinner and a movie.
The next morning our fingers, backs, legs, and necks were mildly sore from the weeding extravaganza the day before. But it was a good thing it wasn’t too serious because our Saturday task ending up being to pull more weeds (and swat more gnats*). It wasn’t the original plan but the weather was too wet to do anything grape-related, and weeding is always something that needs to be done. That night we went to a benefit for the local Volunteer Firefighter Department and then we came home and had some wonderful strawberry pie made from the berries we picked the day before.
On Sunday the real grape work began. After a nice morning walk guided by the neighbor’s energetic and lovable Pit bull Zeus, we put on our work clothes. Our task was to thin out the hotbed: this is the place where the grape vine cuttings are grown until they are large enough plants to be transplanted into the vineyard. We had to differentiate between several types of grapes, thin out the excess, and then carefully dig up the plants using a four-sided shovel. They then found homes inside the rows of vines. This was challenging but fun work (although the gnats and mosquitos were insufferable) and taught us a lot about pruning plants. We worked as a pretty solid team: Erik pruned, Joe cleared, and we both dug. It was a long day, our clothes were filthy and our shoes caked in mud, but there was still strawberry pie to look forward to. Since there was so much to do, Monday was comprised of the same tasks but we were able to very thoroughly clean up the hotbed, and we found dozens of usable subjects for transplantation.
When we weren’t working we had a nice time visiting with the owners, who are incredibly kind, are both great cooks, and have lots of good stories. They also had two beautiful and friendly collies and two outdoor cats, and were nursing a baby squirrel until he could be released back into nature. The husband is a very ingenious (professional) trouble-shooter who designed and built much of his own vineyard equipment and has been experimenting with several aspects of the growing process, which have been yielding great results. The wife helps in the vineyard when she can but also has several pretty flower beds on the property. As a gift, they gave us two bottles of wine (one made completely with grapes from this vineyard) and allowed us to pick some strawberries for the road!
Even though this HelpX occurred very early in our trip, working on a vineyard was something we really wanted to experience; and since this location was directly in between two stops, we decided to go for it. It was exactly what we had hoped for – yes, it was a lot of work (by our choice – but the owner always worked longer days than we did), but it gave us a taste of the grape-growing process. In fact, in part because of our hard work, we helped them cross the two-acre mark with their vines. It was a small operation, it was stress-free, and despite the blisters and cuts, brushes with nettles, and dirt all over our bodies and clothes, it was actually pretty fun. It was a great time all around. Hopefully this experience will come in handy when seeking similar opportunities in Chile or Argentina!
*A little trick we learned from the very clever trouble-shooter: rub a little pure vanilla extract (not imitation) behind each ear and the gnats will keep their distance. No joke – it worked.