An estimated 10,000 Church members converged on the Church's Fresno Vineyard this August to do more than just pick grapes. They came together in a common purpose to bless the lives of other people.
"This is sacred work," said President Jeff Boswell of the Fresno California West Stake. "People realize that they don't come to the vineyard to make raisins, they come to the vineyard to bless Heavenly Father's children."
Located in Madera, Calif., the 80-acre vineyard attracts Latter-day Saints from eight central California stakes each summer as members from Merced, Hanford, Visalia, Porterville and four Fresno stakes come to pick. They gather en masse, sometimes parking as far as 2.5 miles away.
In fact, volunteer rates at the vineyard are so high that vineyard managers determined this year to split the harvest into two weekends to manage parking and crowds.
Volunteers complete their rows — about an average of six per ward — and then move to other rows.
It sounds amazing that 10,000 people would give that much time for grapes, but President Boswell says its not.
Working on the vineyard has just been a way of life in Fresno for almost five decades, he explained. His family, for example, has been serving at the site for three generations.
In 1962, the Church bought the vineyard, which was planted in 1949.
Each winter, local Church members prune the vines. Then at harvest time, the grapes are cut from the vine, put into large grape pans and dumped onto paper trays laid out between the vine rows. The grapes dry naturally on the trays under the sun for about 21 days.
When ready, the dried fruit is put into bins and sent to nearby Sun Maid Raisin Co., which custom packs the product in boxes with the Church's Deseret label.
From central California, the raisins are sent to the Bishops' Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City where they are distributed throughout the Church's welfare system. In addition, raisins are used as part of the Church's humanitarian relief efforts worldwide, and at food banks, soup kitchens and rescue missions throughout the United States.
The reason people come to the vineyard each year is simple, said vineyard manager Jamie Hansen. "They know where all the raisins go."
President Boswell said it differently: "Every one of these little raisins gets given away in the Lord's program."
Last year the vineyard produced 200 tons of raisins. This year, because of a late spring frost, Brother Hansen expects the yield to be around 80 to 90 tons.
However, the miracle of the vineyard cannot be measured in its yield, he said, but in the lives of the people who serve there. "My greatest goal is not how many grapes or raisins are produced here, but that everyone who comes to this vineyard can feel the Spirit of the Lord, because obviously, if we are serving our fellow men we are serving Him," he said. "This is hallowed ground. This is sacred ground because of the sacrifice of the people who come here."
For example, one year Brother Hansen visited the vineyard on Christmas Day to feed the dogs that are kept on the site for security purposes.
There in the fields were members of a Spanish unit from Madera. "They were field workers themselves. They had been working three to four weeks straight."
When he asked why they were there on Christmas Day, they told Brother Hansen that this was their only day off for the next four to seven weeks.
"They gave up their day off [on Christmas] to come and work on the Lord's vineyard. They told me it was their gift to the Christ child."
Brother Hansen, who has worked in the vineyard since he was 4 years old, said over the years he has heard countless stories of sacrifice and service at the vineyard.
Most people, however, just have simple memories of family time at the site.
"I thought it was the most fun you could ever have," said Kristine Splan, who began working on the vineyard at age 8. "I didn't realize until later how hard of work it really was. I was just out there with my family having a great time, all of us together."