On Saturday evening, October 13, the fourth annual Harvesters’ Dinner was held at the Meaford & St. Vincent Community Centre.
The whole town was invited for a meal of curried chicken and rice, great musical entertainment, and a celebration of the contributions made by harvesters who come each year from the south to help us get our apples to market.
It is a measure of their importance to our community that the celebration began with a speech from Mayor Barb Clumpus commending the harvesters for their great contribution to Meaford’s economy. While her speech was on schedule the harvesters weren’t, and she had to thank them in absentia.
“I was trying to make it on a Saturday night to have a better dance atmosphere,” said organizer Fayard Johnson. “We may have to go back to Sunday for next year because what we’ve learned is that if it’s a big crop the guys work on Saturday. They work seven days a week sometimes so if they work seven days maybe Sunday might be a half day, so they may have more time to come on a Sunday than they would on a Saturday.”
On Saturday at 6:30 p.m. they were either just coming in from work, or still getting ready for the party. A bus had been chartered to pick up some workers in Thornbury. When it arrived around 7:30 p.m., the tables were already filled with townspeople enjoying the food and the Northern Lights Steel Pan Orchestra. They rose for a standing ovation to the harvesters when they entered the hall.
More tables and chairs were set up and the party continued. When the steel band took a break, Alan Johnson entertained, and MC John Howard called the first winners on a draw that had been specifically set up for the guests of honour.
Fayard had arranged for someone to watch at the door for harvesters as they arrived, and to give them tickets for the draw. People had donated gift certificates for the Beaver Valley Outreach store.
“The guys, especially the ones who live in Thornbury, go and shop at BVO before they go home,” said Fayard. “We get the gift certificates and we buy stuff at BVO and I know the guys need suitcases so we go to Walmart to buy suitcases and put in a bit of extra money and put some clothes in there just to draw for the guys. I think they enjoy that. And it’s all different kinds of clothes, for women, men, children. My tag line is, ‘If it doesn’t fit give it to your cousin’.”
In its fourth year, the Harvesters’ Dinner continues to grow. It “was started by a man going for a walk,” said Fayard, who explained that Ted Light, who lives in Meaford on the 7th Line, struck up a conversation with a harvester he met one day and that conversation led to a friendship. “He started coming over for dinner and before you know it the next year they’d be having dinner with a bunch of the guys.”
It became a formalized affair when they involved Meaford’s Christ Church Anglican. Fayard said that, “Four years ago it was organized by the church and the seed money was from the Brotherhood of Anglican Churchmen.” With municipal grants, donations from Rotary, the United Way, and small business and private donors, including a donation jar at the event, a dinner open to the entire community was offered at the Community Centre, with Alan Johnson providing entertainment.
“Two years ago I moved to Meaford and they asked me to organize it and I said yes, ” says Fayard, “So we still raise money and we put it on and the money that’s left over goes to the Ted Light Fund.” Ted had a stroke and was no longer able to organize the event, but Fayard, with Sharon’s help, was happy to put in the effort despite having a full time job.
When the dinner was finished and most of the dishes cleared away except for remaining slices of pie, and the steel orchestra had played their encore, DJ Monique B pushed the right buttons to get the harvesters on their feet dancing in the aisles between the tables. “She knows all the latest stuff,” says Fayard.
The tunes provided by Monique B. were augmented by Tom Thwaits, host of the monthly Bring Your Own Vinyl night at The Red Door. He brought analog turntables and a pile of vinyl of Jamaican classics from his personal collection to spin.
“It was a great night.” says Fayard, “Eveything went well. I think everybody had a good time.”
As it is becoming established as an annual event, Fayard has plans to grow it even bigger.
“I want it to grow so that we get more donations in. We feel that there are enough causes in the harvester community to be able to raise a little money and give to their community, whether it’s here or back home.”
“There’s a fellow that worked for one of the places in Thornbury that has had terminal cancer and he’s back home now. He can’t work anymore so we’re going to be able to send a little bit of money for his kids.”
Just as some of the workers who come here from Jamaica and Mexico to help with the harvest has become a tradition that has sustained through generations, with many workers returning year after year for decades, the Harvesters’ Dinner is becoming a new tradition that allows the community to express its appreciation for a work force we couldn’t get along without.