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May. 24, 2022 | Tuesday
Local News
Rocky McKenzie: From small-town Jamaica to small-town Canada
The Stratus Vineyards farm crew, in front of their home-away-from-home, “Jamaica House”, and the small market garden that supplies some of their produce. Back row, from left: Andrel Lawson, Devon (Rocky) McKenzie, Sabado Townsend, Kevin McDonald, Linton Beale and Ralph Brown. Front row: Oral Walters and Devon Reid. (Tim Taylor/Niagara Now)

Rocky McKenzie knows long days. In the field by 7:30 a.m., sitting on a large upturned plastic pail, sharp pruning shears in hand, slowly moving along the rows, he’s removing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that are not likely to mature.

Thinning up to 40 per cent of the grapes helps the remaining crop to flourish.

The vineyards are damp underfoot, the air is muggy and lifeless. This is crucial, often lonely work. The small Stratus Vineyards team must thin 60,000 vines on the 55-acre property over just a few weeks.

Devon (Rocky) McKenzie comes from Clarendon Parish, a little town called Pennants, deep in the heart of Jamaica’s famous coffee country, 80 kilometres almost due west of Kingston.

He first came to Niagara 17 years ago as a temporary farm worker, to work in the Stratus’ vineyards.

Rocky was 24 when he left home, a jack-of-all-trades, able to fix almost anything. He still does that and just about everything else, if it has to do with growing and harvesting grapes. Now, he’s considered a team leader of the eight-man Stratus field crew.

Rocky was part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program that matches willing, skilled workers from Mexico and 11 Caribbean countries with farmers looking for hardworking employees for their farms during critical periods in their season.

The seasonal workers program annually brings 20,000 workers to Ontario for up to eight months. More than 1,400 Ontario farmers participate in the program from 16 agricultural sectors, including dairy, fruit, poultry and swine.

Each year Rocky leaves his partner, Nalician, a stay-at-home mom for their three youngest children—10, 9 and 3 years—and comes to Niagara in the spring. They have two older children, one in university, another teaching school.

Like parents everywhere, Rocky wanted a better life for his kids. “I need to do well enough so my kids will have a better future,” he says.

“I could have worked in coffee and stayed at home. Everyone else did. But the economy was very poor. I thought: ‘I need to get out of Jamaica.’ ”

For the first time this year, Rocky has become a full-time employee of Stratus. It’s a new two-year visa designed to give the industry more flexibility with staffing. Rocky volunteered to try the longer period and says: “It’s going OK, except for the cold!”

In fact, he’s hoping another new program will soon allow him to get his landed immigrant status so he can bring his family to Canada.

Rocky is proud of the work he does, fighting all kinds of weather, biological and pest perils, to ensure the harvest that goes into the winery is the best it can possibly be.

“Stratus does it right,” he boasts. “By hand. We handpick the grapes and then hand sort them. We pick one day and then go into the winery the next day, to sort and start the winemaking.”

He says the first crush (harvest) for sparkling wine grapes likely will happen in early September. “We probably won’t finish Cabernet Sauvignon until December.”

Rocky thinks the rainy, cool spring weather may reduce this year’s harvest by as much as 30 per cent. “But you never know”, he says. “Mother Nature may be kind.”

As he moves down the rows, he invokes Mother Nature’s work often. He believes She explains why some vines die and some vines grow in strange ways. “That’s just Mother Nature. You just never know.”

Connecting with home used to be a challenge. “I remember when we only had a land line to call home. We had to buy a pre-paid calling card. It was $2 a minute, I think.”

Now with the help of his Bluetooth headphones and his cellphone, Rocky listens to radio from back home in Kingston. And he receives an almost continuous barrage of phone calls from family and friends, all-the-while patiently and diligently searching for and cutting away grape clusters that could inhibit the quality of the harvest.

As the conversation continues, it becomes easier to understand his Jamaican patois. Or maybe he is just being kind. When the whole crew is together, they create a language barrier around their world.

Every fortnight, Stratus arranges a small bus to take the crew food shopping, usually in St. Catharines. Each worker prepares his own meals, in Rocky’s case that means a lot of chicken and rice and peas. But he talks about many of his favourite Jamaican foods — goat’s head soup, patties, ackee and saltfish, and so on.

Rocky and the crew live in what is dubbed “Jamaica House,” at the back of the Stratus property near the winery’s drive shed. They are just now picking vegetables from the little market garden they planted in front of the house.

When his long day finishes, he spends time on a computer he bought locally and continues his conversations home.

“I don’t go out much. You hear the bad news from everywhere — people being killed. It’s not safe. I don’t want to take a chance. So, I just stay home.”

Once in a while he and some of his mates attend services at the Niagara Mennonite Church just up the way on Niagara Stone Road. “I go to church regularly at home.”

Rocky talks with reverence about what he does and it’s clear his 17-year commitment has earned the respect of Stratus management.

Diana Sangster, Stratus Vineyard manager, speaks highly both of Rocky’s contribution and the migrant workers’ program.

The winery tries hard to get the same work team back year after year. “We’re able to specify the workers they want,” she says. “Most of these guys have been here five or more years, with many over 10 years.

“We take the time to train them, so they really understand our equipment and everything we are trying to achieve.”

Stratus gets help, navigating the government program, from a third-party service, Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS).

FARMS is a private sector run, not-for-profit organization, governed by a board of directors, appointed from the agricultural sector groups participating in the program.

Ken Forth is the president and board chair of FARMS. He’s also a major broccoli farmer from the Hamilton area.

Forth says he believes in the value of the program. “I’ve been in the program for 50 years and I have one guy who has been with me for 35 of those years.”

He says, without FARMS’ involvement, the program would be in chaos. “We charge $45 per worker to process the application. When it’s approved, we put the order in to the foreign government. We also arrange all the travel for the workers.

“It’s simple. Farmers want to do something special. They actually want to farm, not do paperwork. FARMS allows them to do that — we remove some of the hassle.”

The seasonal workers are paid $14 to $16 an hour, depending on their experience, role and sector. Their accommodation and cooking facilities are provided, but they do their own shopping and cooking. They pay income tax on their earnings.

Forth is proud of the role seasonal workers have played in Canada’s agricultural sector. “We’ve had migrant workers from other countries in Canada for over 100 years.

“Without the seasonal workers we would be dead. We wouldn’t have an industry. Period.”

It’s not clear if Rocky really understands just how much he and his team mean to the success of Ontario’s wine industry.

Perhaps we don’t say it often enough.


Reporter’s notes: To get a real sense of Rocky McKenzie and his role in the industry, I needed to work a few rows in his boots. One cloudy, muggy morning a few weeks ago, Rocky and I rode our bikes along the rutted tracks to start thinning a block of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that were planted in 2001, Stratus’ first year of operation. As we worked our way along opposite sides of the same vines, Rocky opened up about his life, his aspirations and his pride in his work.