Day in the Life: Tatjana the cucumber grower

As part of her everyday work duties, Tatjana Maftulyak drops climbing cucumber plants down along their support strings so they have more room to continue growing and producing cucumbers. 5 April 2019.
As part of her everyday work duties, Tatjana Maftulyak drops climbing cucumber plants down along their support strings so they have more room to continue growing and producing cucumbers. 5 April 2019. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Springlike weather has finally arrived in Estonia, but for me, it is 23.5C every day. My charges at work grow three times my height in as many months, and provide fresh vegetables — which are technically actually fruits — for families across Estonia all year long. My name is Tatjana Maftulyak, and I am a cucumber grower at Grüne Fee Eesti in Lohkva.

I wake up very early for work — at 4:30 — six days per week. I check the weather forecast before leaving home, although the weather, so to speak, is more or less the same year round in the greenhouses — 23.5C and humid, although in summer it can climb above that when temperatures outside soar.

During winter, the greenhouses are heated to maintain appropriate growing temperatures, but there are no air conditioning systems to cool them down during the hottest weather; we just open up the glass windows and pray.

Our workday begins at six in the morning. Because of the warm, humid conditions in the greenhouses, our typical work uniform is shorts and a short-sleeved shirt with the company logo on it, although for some jobs we will wear long pants, long sleeves and head covers to protect us. I love warmth, though, and hate the cold, so sometimes I even feel like it's not warm enough in the greenhouse when I first get to work — I will actually feel chilly!

2,200 cucumber plants

The cucumber plants in each greenhouse are divided up into 11 sectors, with one person in charge of each. Each sector is 900sq m in size, and includes nearly 2,200 cucumber plants growing vertically in neat rows on either side of a long concrete centre walkway running down the middle of the length of the greenhouse. The first task of my day is to harvest the long green cucumbers from the ends of the vines closest to the ground as they each peak ripeness.

You may have grown or seen your parent or grandparent grow tomatoes or cucumbers in the garden with the help of a wooden dowel or something similar for support. Here at work, we train our famous "Luunja" cucumber vines to grow upward along white string whose surplus is kept wound and hanging from a horizontal wire support that runs along the row.

As I go down each row, I use the help of something like a motorised stepladder to reach the tops of the plants and carefully drop the string down so that the top of the vine has more room to continue growing upward and producing more cucumbers. If you accidentally break off the top, you cannot get any more cucumbers out of it, so it is important to be careful when handling it. A set of plants can produce cucumbers for some three months when done correctly. These plants will be cleared out in June.

We have a break at nine in the morning and then again at noon. Then it is time to pick old cucumber leaves which we gather into plastic crates that we stack at the ends of our rows, along the edge of the central walkway. Thankfully we don't have to carry these anywhere ourselves; a tractor comes through and picks up all of the plant waste at the end of the day. It doesn't actually go to waste, either — the organic waste is eventually composted, and used on the fields surrounding the nearby old Luunja Manor, which are under the ownership of Grüne Fee's parent company in Finland. Our cucumbers are popularly known as "Luunja cucumbers" across Estonia to this day.

I love my job. I have been working here since 2004, when I ended up here after seeing a job ad for the position. Our team here at work is like one big family. Those of us in the greenhouse have a lot of work to do every day, but we find time to talk to each other too. I am happy with our work schedule overall, although I wish our workday began at 7 instead of 6. But I have holidays every summer, and we take field trips and enjoy a swimming pool and massages. I am grateful to my employer.

I of course also like that I can spend time with my plants and take care of them; I think they are interesting throughout their growth cycle. If a cucumber gets too little water or is subject to too high or too low temperatures, they have a tendency to grow bitter. None of ours are bitter, though; they have a sweeter taste.

Belarusian in Lohkva

I was born and raised near Mogilev, Belarus. Our family was very close. When I was little, I wanted to become a teacher, but I don't think that's very "me" anymore.

I first came to Estonia in 1984, to stay with relatives in Tallinn. I graduated from what is now known as the Transport School of Tallinn, after which I moved to Tartu. But I have worked here, just outside Tartu city limits, for 25 years now already.

My workday ends early, at 2:45 in the afternoon, which leaves me with plenty of time to dedicate to my family. I consider family top priority. Mine currently consists of my spouse, our son, and a cat whom we all love. I love spending time together with them in the afternoon after work.

Even what I want from life is related largely to family — I want employment, and I think that my wages could be higher. But I also want my son to learn a respectable profession. I want people in general to become more tolerant and humane as well. I'd also like to learn more languages, including English!

Although I myself have changed somewhat over the years, apparently becoming more patient and understanding along the way, I still find it important to take care of one's own health as well as that of one's loved ones, and appreciate each day we are given.

In the evenings I'll watch the news, and my family and I will sometimes discuss our plans for the next day. But then it's off to bed already, as I'll have to be up at 4:30 again soon enough.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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