More than 5,000 members of the Church of Latter Day Saints descended on Madera for the annual grape harvest.
The LDS church produces food grown from points all over the world. The food is used for the church’s welfare program, but the church-owned Madera Ranch is the only one that produces raisins. All of the grapes produced, a variety called Thompson Seedless, are harvested by church volunteers. The only exception is turning the paper (also called trays), which requires skilled labor to prevent raisins from spilling on the ground.
The 80-acre Madera Ranch, managed by church member Jamie Hansen, is the only one of its’ kind, owned by the church. Hansen, a father of eight children ranging from age 6 to 22, is the only paid employee. Growing up around agriculture in the Chowchilla area, and while a young man, traveled to Australia to do missionary work, then returned to attend Cal Poly. He received a dual degree in horticulture and pomology.
Hansen has been instrumental in improving the health of the vineyard and nearly doubling the production. He credits the new drip system as giving production a boost. “We produced 130 to 140 tons before installing the drip system,” he said. “Last year we produced around 210 tons.
“The harvest is also a big social event,” said Hansen. “Sometimes people give up their summer vacation to come here to participate in the harvest. It’s because they know the raisins we make here go for a good cause and people want to help; they want to do some good. Last year we had a television helicopter flying overhead. There were so many cars arriving early, people had to park two miles away and walk to the field.”
“For many years we harvested like everyone else,” said George Leavitt, a Madera Viticulture farm advisor. “Today, I am not wearing my farm advisor cap. I am showing the ecclesiastical side of me and participating as a volunteer.
“In the past, 30 tons a year went to the welfare program in the church, then about four years ago, the church made a decision. The raisins we didn’t use for the welfare system would be used for natural disasters or humanitarian purposes. Sunmaid handles the raisins, by that I mean, cleans, washes and processes them. From there the product is sent to Salt Lake City. Raisins are distributed from there,” said Leavitt.
Raisins are a good commodity because they ship well, store well, and are universally accepted in a host of diets. In disasters, raisins are customarily regarded as a treat.
Leavitt’s volunteer task includes contacting “stakes.” A stake is comparable to a diocese. Wards, like parishes, make up stakes and consist o approximately 300 to 700 people. Leavitt contacted eight stakes, which includes West Fresno and all of Madera county. Various wards, depending on the number of people, are assigned specific rows of grapes. Names of the wards are posted at the end of each row.
“The turnout is wonderful,” said Jeff Boswell. Boswell, is the Bishop assigned to oversee the business aspect of the ranch.
“Look at the little kids carrying the paper. They are too young to pick but people find things for them to do. This is a family project. The church teaches that when you are in service to your fellow man, you are in service to your God,” said Boswell. “The church is the largest farmer in the world.”
The church also sponsors humanitarian relief and development projects around the world. These projects include emergency relief assistance in times of disaster and programs which strengthen the productivity and self-reliance of individuals and families, and increase the capacity of communities and institutions to serve others.
Members are purported to be working side-by-side with members of the Muslim community in California to prepare humanitarian aid kits for those suffering in Iraq.