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Jack Knox: Pender Island hop-pickers pluck urban heartstrings

With his work gloves, overalls and a hat that looks like it lost a fight with a rototiller, Richard Piskor doesn’t look like a physics prof or a university administrator, which is what he was before pulling the plug at UVic a few years ago.

With his work gloves, overalls and a hat that looks like it lost a fight with a rototiller, Richard Piskor doesn’t look like a physics prof or a university administrator, which is what he was before pulling the plug at UVic a few years ago.

He looks like the farmer he became after trading academia for Pender Island. And he would like the world to know how grateful he is to all the island neighbours who on this warm September morning have volunteered to harvest the hundreds of hop plants growing on his seven-acre Hope Bay Hop Farm.

A total of 76 of those neighbours have signed up. They’re scattered in twos and threes around a score of folding tables upon which are piled the bines (no, the b isn’t a typo, though don’t ask me why) that Piskor and his neighbour, a garlic farmer, have cut from the long vertical wires on which they grow. By late afternoon, a van belonging to Victoria’s Hoyne Brewing Company will trundle onto the ferry with more than 700 pounds of the the thumb-sized, soft green cones plucked from the bines by the pickers.

Most hops are dried and stored for brewers to use as needed, but the Hope Bay crop is going straight into the vats to make Wolf Vine Ale, a wet-hopped beer – that is, one in which the brewing process begins right after harvest. “It gives the beer this really cool, unique green character,” says brewmaster Sean Hoyne. Imagine pungent aromas. Vancouver Island liquor stores are keen to get their mitts on the once-a-year batch of Wolf Vine, all 7,000 litres worth. “It’s already sold out,” Hoyne says. The beer should hit the shelves in early October.

The thing is, this little success story wouldn’t play out were it not for the participation of those Pender neighbours. This is the fifth year Hope Bay has relied on those volunteers, whose only reward has been a party hosted by Hoyne later in the fall. To pay pickers, or to ferry over one of the mechanized harvesters used by big hop farms, would be prohibitively costly.

“We could not do it without the volunteers,” says Piskor, who turns 69 this week. “It would be impossible.”

Happily, Pender has historically been one of those self-reliant places where helping the neighbours is part of the cultural DNA. Volunteers drive the community hall, the library (open Tuesdays and Fridays), the dandy nine-hole golf course (where green fees get dropped into an honour box) and, in an old schoolhouse, the once-a-week Nu-To-Yu thrift store, which somehow has parlayed the sale of 10-cent paperbacks and 50-cent jigsaw puzzles into more than $1 million for local causes since 1983. Volunteers take care of parks, staff the fire department, keep the Magic Lake sewer and waste systems running.

“It’s just a community thing,” says David Sherman, one of the pickers. The former Victoria realtor says pitching in is part of the lifestyle choice you make when moving to a place where everybody knows everybody else. “One of the nice things about living on Pender is you can go into the liquor store and say ‘I’m going to the Smiths for dinner. What kind of wine do they drink?’”

Sherman is echoed by another volunteer, a young Dutch-born man named Rutger Camphuis. “You don’t live here to become a millionaire. You live here to live here.” And that includes helping as needed.

“It’s therapeutic,” adds another picker, Carolyn Danco, her hop-plucking fingers as busy as a knitter’s. COVID rules apply on this day — gloves, 10 hand-washing stations, bring your own dinnerware — but even with their sorting tables spaced well apart, the pickers can still see one another, making this as as close to a community gathering as many have experienced in months.

“It’s a nice way for people to be out together and still be safe,” says Piskor’s partner, Jan Albertin, overlooking this pastoral panorama. She and a few others are up by the house, preparing lunch: Chili, buns, potato and bacon salad, Asian noodle salad, a variety of desserts (including at least one, I am assured, that has been made from a treasured family recipe). Hoyne has hauled over buckets of ice-cold beer, which disappear down parched throats. From somewhere, a sound system is serenading the pickers with The Only Living Boy In New York.

It all feels vaguely Amish, in a wholesome, back-to-the-land kind of way. Think of the barn-raising scene from Witness. Think of Diane Laine fleeing San Francisco for earthy Italy in Under the Tuscan Sun. Think of city boy Bob Newhart embracing his country inn. Think, if you’re old enough, of Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in Green Acres.

This is the Gulf Islands life that urban office workers dream of while rotting to death in their cubicles. A life in which cars are left unlocked, no one rips off the roadside produce stands and neighbours are always willing to lend a hand when it’s time to buck up a fallen tree or bury a troublesome government official in the back 40.

It’s also the kind of life that, in the Year of the Pandemic, is inspiring those who have grown weary of the cities. In the U.S., real estate in so-called work-from-home small towns is a hot commodity. On Pender, longtime residents report a surge of newcomers.

Living simply can be more complicated than some expect, though. And knowing your neighbours can be a double-edged sword. A woman on Lasqueti Island once cautioned me about the pitfalls of dealing with the same people, day after day: if you get in a fight with or go to bed with someone on a drunken Saturday night, they’ll still be there on Sunday morning. And Monday. And Tuesday….

Nor are such places problem-free Arcadias. (Valdy once described Salt Spring as “a difference of opinion surrounded by water.”) Online forums feature the same moaning as is found anywhere. At the height of the COVID restrictions, when space on the ferry was at a premium, it took the daily presence of the RCMP to keep some of Pender’s more volatile residents from losing their cool at the Otter Bay terminal.

Also, that we’re-all-in-this-together ethic isn’t automatic. Picker Murray Vasilev, who sits on the community hall board, says that while the population may be growing, it’s getting harder to find volunteers. Fellow picker Karen Kouf wonders if the human contact that volunteerism traditionally provided in sparsely populated places is now found online instead. Whether in Victoria or on Pender, it takes an effort to grow a community, to keep it healthy, just like it takes an effort to nurture those hop bines.

It’s rewarding, though.

“I like the growth of things,” Albertin says. She’s speaking of those hops, Sterling and Cascade varieties that do well in this climate. Cut them back to their root balls, they’ll come back each year. There are more lucrative crops, and easier ways to grow them — Hope Bay is an organic farm, using ladybugs and mites to keep the aphids away — but Albertin loves to see the results burst forth.

“It’s a very fulfilling thing.”