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GIs Work as Farm Hands During German Harvest

October 30, 1987

INGELHEIM AM RHEIN, West Germany (AP) _ American troops in West Germany are best known for guarding missiles and manning radar stations, but during harvest time some soldiers turn farm hands, and in this town the crops are grapes.

Amid complaints of aching backs and knees, about 120 U.S. soldiers toiled in Reinhold Saalwaechter’s vineyards near the Rhine in a three-week program that ended Thursday.

Like other American soldiers, they volunteered, as a good-will gesture.

″After a while, most of them didn’t even bother to squat down to cut the grapes,″ said Staff Sgt. Marion Neff of Oak Hill, W.Va. ″They just sat down on the ground and dragged themselves along.″

″Most of them had the same complaints at the end of the day - ’Oh, my back. Oh, my knees,‴ said the 37-year-old sergeant, who participated in the grape picking in this well-known wine region.

He talked to an AP reporter while standing in the middle of wind-swept rows of grapes in chilly weather that made the Saalwaechter family glad they’d enlisted the soldiers, as do dozens of other farmers throughout West Germany.

The vineyards are about 1 1/2 miles from the McCully barracks, where the soldiers of the 1st Batallion, 1-59th Air Defense Artillery are stationed.

Spec. 4 Brenton Everett of Tampa, Fla., said he had originally thought harvesters picked one grape at a time.

″But we used shears to cut off whole bunches at a time, so it didn’t take that long,″ said the 20-year-old soldier.

Everett said he enjoyed the hours away from his normal duty in the air defense artillery unit, where the motto is ″It flies, it dies.″

Most of the soldiers worked in groups of 12 and put in a full day of harvesting each.

Birgit Saalwaechter-Schleussner, who helps run the family winery, said in an interview that the soldiers didn’t receive extra pay.

″But they got a nice hot lunch, a bottle of wine for a day’s work, and a special invitation for a gala thank-you banquet next Tuesday night,″ she said.

She said that finding temporary harvest help is difficult and expensive, while the family business is resisting the temptation to introduce labor- saving automatic grape-pickers on the 24.7 acres of vineyards.

The 31-year-old woman, who spent six months studying wine making in California’s Sonoma Valley in 1980, said there weren’t too many language difficulties among the German field hands and the soldiers.

″They worked in groups where generally one or two of the soldiers understood enough German to follow instructions.″

Her family has been producing wine in Ingelheim, 11 miles from Mainz, since the 11th or 12th century.

Throughout West Germany, soldiers put in stints as farm hands during critical harvest times.

Sgt. Elayne Venema of the U.S. Army’s European Headquarters said that while it’s hard to estimate the exact number ″several hundred soldiers″ have been turning out annually ″for years.″

Most of them pitch in on farms in Hesse, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria in the central and southern parts of West Germany.

Three U.S. soldiers from the Mainz area have been picking apples for a local grower.

″Out of the kasernes (barracks) and into the harvest 3/8″ was the recent slogan for soldiers in the Heilbronn area of Bavaria.

In the Fulda area, County Commissioner Fritz Kramer and Col. Thomas E. White, commander of the 4,500-man 11th Armored Cavalry, called on local farmers to offer American soldiers’ help in the summer harvest.