BURGAW, N.C. — While the rest of the world gears up for fall, every September George and Sonya Barber are working as fast as they can to bring in the biggest grape harvest possible.
What You Need to Know
- The Barber’s own Whitehall Vineyards and farm around 80 acres of vines
- Harvest overlaps with hurricane season, and it’s frequently a race to get the grapes picked in time
- Each box of grapes is 1,500 pounds, and each truckload has 38 boxes on it
When the family started Whitehall Vineyards in 2001, their operation wasn’t anywhere close to refined, and they both described their first harvest as a complete mess compared to what it is now.
“That was a disaster because what everybody else made look easy, when you actually get in your position, you’re like ‘Wow, how does this work?,’” Sonya Barber said. “Screaming and yelling, ‘Stop! Go!’ George had a whistle. I had a whistle. Whistles were blowing.”
Although they make it look seamless, it’s taken years of working side-by-side to get to this level of communication, and they say that’s another reason they keep their crews small and consistent from year to year.
“An inexperienced driver works here a lot harder,” George Barber said. “If they can’t keep that tube right over the center of the box she’s having to fight it the whole time.”
“There’s so many moving parts between the tractor driver, the picker and me that everybody has to look out for what they can see because not everybody can see every part of it,” Sonya Barber said.
Mechanical issues and weather are the two things that can majorly set them back and as much as they try to detect problems ahead of time, but they simply can’t anticipate everything.
“We do all the maintenance, we do everything, “ George Barber said. “We just have to get the part from somebody. And I keep parts, I keep spare motors and spare things, but the pump has never gone out on us, and that’s a big deal.”
For the first three weeks in September, harvest is their entire focus, but they said this year there’s been less pressure than others with no storms brewing in the Atlantic Ocean that pose immediate threats at the moment.
Regardless, they start their day in the vineyard at sunrise and work until it’s too dark to continue. It takes three and a half hours to pick a truckload of grapes, and each truck hauls 38 boxes of 1,500 pounds each.
“Even though it’s tiring . . . stressful . . . it’s so worth it because you’re reaping the rewards of all that you put into it,” Sonya Barber said.