The cars have been lined up at The Grape Patch on Latta Road for weeks, with the numbers only increasing as word spreads that Saturday will be the last day at the farm.
In June, Herbert Teather, the old-time farmer who grew the patch of table grapes for four decades, was killed doing what he loved: Working on the farm. He was run over by his tractor.
“It’s been quite intense. In the beginning we had to take shifts to cope with all the people and the stories,” said Rita Kilgren, his daughter.
The number of people coming out to pick and purchase from the rows of different grapes—Himrods, Einset seedless, Bath, and so on—wasn’t as unexpected as the hours spent hearing about their loved one.
At 60-cents-a-pound, Bert’s price, the grapes are somewhere between $2 and $3.50 below market value; a price worthy of a crowd. The people coming up the road to talk aren’t there for the deal, however, as much as they are there to talk about Bert and the farm.
“I was actually surprised at how many really young people were very emotional about it,” said Kilgren. “Young women say: ‘Oh, he was like a father to me. He would hear all my problems and listen to me.’”
The grape pickers are marking the loss of a lifestyle—the ability to pick good, healthy food off the plant. “Where will we go now?” is a common refrain. There was no place for mediocrity in Bert’s style of farming, as Kilgren explains it. “It was something he spent a lot of time getting right.”
And free of the constraints of having to earn his living off his proceeds, Bert was spending his retirement years sharing good, healthy food with his customers and showing youngsters how grapes are grown.
Farm sales of many soft fruits, like table grapes, is a rarity nowadays. With Bert’s death, his customers mark the end of an era where they knew the farmer who stood behind his product.
Grapes don’t require a lot of pesticides, but they do require fungicides and Bert could honestly say to his customers, nothing harmful ever touched his crops. He sprayed with sulphur, a basic element, and while he wasn’t certified organic, he tried to keep it simple.
“We came from a world where everybody thought pesticides were the answer to everything,” said Kilgren, noting that as a child she was playing in DDT. “We came through that and, eventually, realized less is more. He used to say pesticides didn’t make sense anyway. They cost too much.”
A lot of adjusting to the times went on at The Grape Patch over the years, in fact, the decision to buy the farm was an adaptation, of sorts. Bert and his wife, Rita, had three children. Kilgren’s younger sister, Judy, had cerebral palsy and as she grew, Rita senior had difficulty managing.
Bert had been raised in the fruit industry. He grew up in a rental house—it now sits at the Father Pandosy Mission, having been moved from its Ellison homestead, the Christian Ranch—and his father was a fruit picker; his mother worked in a packinghouse.
Although Bert grew up to work in the machine shop for Monashee Manufacturing, he knew fruit, so he and Rita moved the family to the grape farm in 1972 so he could be around to help with the children.
The property was planted with Coronation grapes, so they moved into wine grapes, selling to the early wineries like Calona Wines and Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington State. It was difficult work. “You would get a contract to grow grapes for however many years and…they would tell you well, plant Foch. So he would plant Foch, and he would get a beautiful crop and, after about five years, it was the end of the Foch era and they wanted Pinot Noir,” explained Kilgren.
Grapevines take time to establish themselves and the entire process didn’t work for Bert. The cottage wine industry had yet to develop, so he made the move to table grapes in what his daughter describes as a natural evolution.
He forged a friendship with a man who would bring over new varietals, and soon The Grape Patch had rows of different grapes planted all over the 12 acres.
It’s not known when grapes were first planted on the property. An irrigation flume on the top of the farm was put in in 1914, according to the Black Mountain Irrigation District’s records. The area was planted with apples and had some tobacco in those early years, but not grapes.
From Pink Surprise, a name Bert made up for a varietal he loved but never identified, to the Bath they sell to House of Rose for the winery’s grape stomp, it is now, nevertheless, a grape stronghold, famed for its prices, its quality and its owner.
Last year, Bert didn’t like the Pink Surprise crop, so he threw the whole thing out; The Grape Patch customers could always expect perfection and the effort was appreciated.
“He was one of the most positive and generous people that I’ve met,” wrote Deborah Bray, a customer who, like many, took the time to write a special note in the book set out for visitors under his memorial poster this year.
A brief passage commemorating Bert’s life sits behind the counter where his wife has a pricing chart set out so she doesn’t have to do math on command. Bert was 79 years old when he passed.