Joe Hozjan—Still growing after all these years

Joe Hozjan with some of his fresh-picked apples at the fruit stand he runs with his wife, Teresa, on Canboro Road. VOICE PHOTO

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

On a Sunday morning not long ago, Joe Hozjan left his Ridgeville home for his other farm, in North Pelham. Hozjan had been awake since 4 AM, watching the news from his native Slovenia and then reports about the hurricane in Florida. Before leaving, he spoke to his wife, Teresa, who manages the fruit stand at their property on Canboro Road, west of Effingham Street.

“What do want me to bring back?” he asked. “Peaches? Apples?”

“Peaches,” Teresa said. “We need more peaches.”

Hozjan nodded and picked up two stacks of empty fruit baskets, carried them to one of his panel vans, opened the door and put them on its wooden floor.

“I have a lot of garbage here” he said, gesturing at the collection that littered the space between the seats.

“When we finish with the peaches and have a little more time, I’m going to get my son to take care of it. He’s going to take everything out, and clean it all up. He has a pickup truck that’s twenty years old, but to see it, you’d think it was brand new. He keeps it so clean.”

There were plums in the cupholders. The night had been a cold one, but by eight o’clock the sun had warmed the outside of the windshield enough that the inside was coated in condensation. Hozjan pulled a cloth from his pocket and leaned over the steering wheel to reach. As he started the engine and began to pull on to the road, a light flashing on the dash and a soft beep encouraged him to put on his seatbelt. Hozjan is compact—no more than five-four or five-five—and his seat was moved so far forward that his chest pushed against the steering wheel as his feet stretched for the pedals.

A few minutes down Canboro Road, Hozjan pointed at a man running towards him and slowed to a stop. “That’s my Polish doctor there,” he said. “He runs ten kilometres every day.”

The runner jogged over to the truck and rested on the driver’s door, panting and glistening.

“Doctor, how are you today?” Hozjan said. “Why are you sweating?”

“You’re supposed to,” the doctor said, laughing. “Tell me, who is wasting those tomatoes,” he said, nodding at the field of rotting produce behind him. “Such a waste.”

“It’s not.” Hozjan said. “They’re picking, picking a little bit every day. I think that there was a lot of hail damage.”

The doctor persisted. “I remember when people in Europe were starving, and I cannot look at the wasted food now.”

“What are you gonna do?” Hozjan said. “Maybe one day we’re going to starve here also.”

The doctor laughed again, this time half-heartedly. “You never know,” he said. They said their goodbyes. Hozjan continued west, then turned north.

Hozjan was born in 1945 in Lendava, a small Slovenian town near the borders of Croatia and Hungary, just as the Second World War was ending. His father raised livestock and worked odd jobs, and Hozjan’s home didn’t have electricity until he was ten years old. But Hozjan insists that they always had everything that they needed.

After finishing the obligatory 18 months of military service, he began growing trees from seed and selling them wholesale. Hozjan was so content with life in Lendava that when his older sister, who had moved to Canada years previously, came to visit with her husband and two children and encouraged him to join her in Montreal, he demurred. “I didn’t want to come to Canada,” he said. “I wanted to stay home.”

Eventually he relented.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll go for two or three years, make some money, and then be able to come back home and open up a restaurant in my hometown.’”

Before he left Slovenia he told his sister that he would stay for two weeks—and if he hadn’t found a job by then, he’d come straight back home.

Hozjan arrived in Montreal in February 1968, and remembers finding mountains of snow in the streets. “Where I was coming from in Slovenia, we were wearing short-sleeves at the time. I couldn’t believe how cold it was.”

There were cultural impediments, too. While Hozjan was already fluent in a handful of Eastern European languages, he spoke neither French nor English. Fortunately for him this was not a major impediment to working, and after just a few days he found a job making pantyhose in a factory owned by another Slovenian, also named Joe.

He started off working beside an Italian. “He was so fast. By the time I put one stocking on the mould, he had six in the steamer.”

But he learned quickly. Soon he had taught himself to fix sewing machines and had moved on from the stocking post. Hozjan had an aptitude for languages, too. He picked up French and English without trouble, though many of the workers he encountered while maintaining equipment spoke neither. Hozjan seemingly learned from them all. He says he is now comfortable in ten different languages.

What this ability really meant, though, was that he was able to communicate with just about everyone around him. A supervisor took notice, telling Hozjan that everybody liked and respected him, and offered him a foreman’s position. At a gathering where his promotion was announced, Hozjan immediately felt uneasy. “I could see it in their faces—some people thought it was all right, but others were jealous.” He was given his first instructions on a Saturday, a list of things that had to be done by Monday.

“I didn’t feel good. I came in Monday morning, and the guys said to me ‘Mr. Foreman, what should I do?’ And I told them: ‘If you have no work, go home.’”

He quit shortly after.

“I didn’t want to tell people what to do. I am not that kind of person. If you tell me what to do, I will do it.”

He eventually left the factory entirely and joined Teresa in their home doing sewing contracting work, which they did until the early ‘90s, when free trade began to loom. There used to be 120,000 people employed in the Montreal garment industry, according to Hozjan. After NAFTA’s implementation, this dropped to 5,000.

Hozjan’s brother, who had also come to Canada, retired from a job in construction and moved to Pelham. Around the time that work was evaporating in Montreal, Hozjan was visiting Niagara when he noticed a farm for sale on Canboro Road. Though he had little experience—growing trees 30 years previously didn’t really count—he and Teresa decided to buy it.

“I didn’t know how to turn the key in the tractor,” Hozjan said. “I thought, ‘What a mistake I’ve made.’”

They worked long hours just to become competent. Hozjan wrote varietal names on pieces of tape and stuck them on apples and peaches so that they’d be able to memorize them. The two added a 25-acre farm on Centre Street to their seven acres on Canboro and started growing more crops.

In those days, Hozjan slept even less than he does now, often leaving home before five to get to a Brampton farmers’ market early in the morning, while Teresa stayed and worked the fruit stand all day. Now he goes to the St. Catharines Farmers’ Market three times a week, though in the summer the two rarely work fewer than 14 hours a day.

Hozjan is something of a contradiction on this point. He says that it’s impossible for him to sit and relax—after one week of vacation, he can’t take the stillness any longer.

“If I sit around, I go crazy. I get lazy, sick, and fat, because I like to eat. I’m on the see-food diet. What I see, I eat.”

At the same time, he laments the lack of emphasis that Canadian society puts on free time. In Slovenia, he says, “People work to live.” In Canada he thinks we live to work. Extended family often comes visiting from Europe, and without fail they tell him to relax. They are not enraptured by Canada. “They don’t want to stay here,” he says, “Are you kidding? They tell me ‘Joe, you’re crazy. You’re working too much.’”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “Canada is a great country. You can do anything that you want. It’s still not the same. And it’s never going to be. There they work to live, and here we live here to work. Just like me—I am stupid. How many times has my family told me, ‘Joe, come back home.’ And I miss it. But there’s no turning back.”

Despite his claim that he needs to work, Hozjan seems to know that the end of those days is in sight. He and Teresa do most of the farm’s work themselves, though they employ one Mexican migrant worker, Victor, who is 55 and has worked for them for many summers.

“When Victor quits, I’m going to quit,” Hozjan said. He is blunt about the degree to which farmers rely upon these workers. “If there were no Mexicans here, forget about farmers. They would have to close their doors. People here don’t want to work on farms. I would like to get somebody local, but I just can’t find anyone.”

As Hozjan pulled his van into the laneway at his Centre Street farm, he leaned out the window to look at his apple trees. Swollen fruit lined the boughs, most of them heavy with their bounty, arching toward the ground. Hozjan reeled off the apples’ names.

“Those are the Empires—ready now. The Galas are good this year. Granny Smiths are the last ones to be ripe.” He pointed to two rows of Red Delicious. “People used to really like those,” he said. “Now, not as much. I don’t know why.”

In the middle of a small clearing, Hozjan stopped the van and got out. He held up a hand against the sun angling through the maples that bordered the orchard. The grass was heavy with silver dew, darkening the bottoms of Hozjan pants as he walked from tree to tree

A tractor turned a corner and came roaring up the lane. Hozjan waved to Victor, who was behind the wheel. A man riding a bicycle came bumping over the dirt behind the tractor. “Ah, he brought José today,” said Hozjan. “That’s good. There’s a lot to pick.”

Hozjan opened the back of his van and carried the stacks of baskets over to where José had leaned his bicycle against the tractor.

“Pick these ones up high,” he told the two men, reaching above his head and pulling some from the top branches to demonstrate.

“I fell off a ladder once,” Hozjan said. “And one of the Mexicans did too. After that, I pruned all the tops off so that we can reach everything from the ground.”

“Tranquillo, José, tranquillo,” Hozjan said, worrying that the apples were going to bruise. “The cider ones—it’s all right, but people don’t want to eat bruised fruit.”

He watched the two pick for a minute before he climbed back in the van, looking satisfied.

He drove up to the barn, which houses his equipment and the cold storage locker where harvested fruit is kept. Hozjan looked at the light switch and shook his head.

“Victor left the lights on again. He’s always forgetting that.”

Hozjan took control of a mini-forklift and walked it in to the refrigerator. He rubbed his arms against his chest. “It’s too cold in here to talk,” he said, positioning the forks underneath a box of 16 baskets of peaches.

The machine groaned as he hoisted the box off the ground and carted it out to the van. Hozjan arranged them all on the bed, and then returned the forklift to its corner. He looked back into the fridge, where the tops of golden peaches glinted in the gloom and the boxes of apples were wine-dark against the wall. He closed the door.

“Turn off the lights,” he said. “I’ve got enough.”

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