The rickety steel frame tucked into a corner of Greg Fry’s hop shed is barely recognisable, but this network of steel bars and four spindly legs is, surprisingly, an old hospital bed.
Largely concealed by a weighty pile of long-discarded tobacco sacks; its mattress and steel wheels long-gone, the bed has not been used for decades. It was brought to the farm by Greg’s great grandfather, France Fry, in the 1930s.
“I have great memories of snuggling down in it beside my father on harvest nights while the heat from the hop kilns kept the whole shed warm,” says Greg.
“I was only five or six years old but staying up late and going to the shed while Dad dried the hops was pretty exciting stuff. It was probably a nightmare for him, though. I’m sure he would have had plenty of sleepless nights, sharing this tiny bed with a wriggly kid.”
The evocative scent of just-cut hops, the flames behind the furnace doors, the intense heat from the kilns and nights spent in that little bed are Greg’s earliest memories of being raised on the farm, established by France Fry in Brooklyn near Motueka.
“The farm was once the biggest producer of tobacco in the country. They grew hops here, too, and everything was picked by hand.
“Seventy years ago, my grandfather, Melvyn, was one of the first four hop farmers to bring Bruff hop-picking machines into the country. The four machines arrived in huge boxes with no instructions for getting them up and running. Everyone had to work together to figure out how all the parts connected. They went from farm to farm to help one another.”
Nowadays, the Fry’s Bruff machine is relegated to a grassy patch across the yard from the historic hop shed. A slick and shiny Wolf, imported from Bavaria, has taken its place. But much like the harvest-time hospital bed, the old Bruff machine will always conjure up precious memories for the Fry family – including a romance.
As the harvest of 1988 got underway, Swedish twins, Mikael and Pen Sandberg, arrived in Motueka, seeking seasonal work to fund their travels around the South Island. John Fry hired them on the spot, giving Mikael a place on the tobacco harvesting crew while Pen joined the team working along the length of the Bruff hop picking machine.
It was not long before Greg noticed 18-year-old Pen – a new face in the hop-picking shed.
“I used to buy those little chocolate crème eggs,” Greg says. “Every now and then I put one on the Bruff’s conveyor belt, making sure it was in just the right place so it would eventually reach Pen. The first time she saw one of those eggs coming towards her, she picked it up and looked down the shed to see me grinning at her.
“It was pretty cute,” Pen smiles – and the sweet, romantic ploy worked a treat. Greg and Pen have been together ever since. They have two children – Kayla, 29, and Adam, 26 – and their fifth grandchild is due in October.
Greg also fondly remembers his father, John, reminiscing about his own childhood harvest-time chores on the farm.
“In those days everything was picked by hand, so about 30 women would come out here from town and from as far away as Takaka and Marlborough for harvest. The out-of-town ones would camp here, and the local mothers’ kids would walk here after school to help them pick as much as possible, because they were paid by the bushel.
“One of my dad’s jobs was to hand-milk the house cow every morning to make sure there was plenty of milk for the workers, and his mother would cook for them all.”
This year’s hops haul from the Fry’s Brooklyn farm was just the second harvest completed with the new Wolf machine.
“The move to modernise hop farms has a lot to do with the new, young hop farmers, such as Aeron and Braden Moleta. They came into the industry with fresh ideas and did their research to source top machinery and equipment,” says Greg. “It’s an enormous financial investment, of course. It was ballsy!”
Greg believes the young men’s willingness to share their ideas and skills “opened the eyes of many generational hop farmers” in New Zealand’s hop-growing heartland.
“That includes me,” he says. “About five years ago, our son Adam came home to work the farm with me.
“Adam brainstorms with me to make sure we’re keeping our family business moving forward – and that keeps me from getting set in my ways.”
Victoria Clark - 2021