A few weeks ago, on my way out west, I was in Willmar (say “Wilmer”), Minnesota. Willmar is an unusual town: after I was dropped off there, I walked through it a bit, and noticed that pretty much everyone besides me was pretty clearly from Africa. The fact that they black and were speaking a language I didn’t even recognize, or maybe various languages, was a giveaway. A small town an hour outside Minneapolis isn’t generally the sort of place you expect to hear Somali. Later I learned that there’s a Jennie-O turkey processing plant in town. Americans do not wish to disassemble the turkey you buy at the store. People from poor countries can also presumably think of other things they’d rather do, but whatever peanuts Jennie-O is willing to pay them are enough to convince them to leave their homes and come to a land where they speak a strange language and, for several months of the year, water becomes hard enough to drive trucks over.
Carrying my huge backpack, I walked into a pizza joint and got my water bottles filled up. When I came out, a man in a white pickup was waiting for me. “Hi! How’s it going?” he said. “You speak English?”
“Yeah,” I said, uncomprehending.
“Oh. Thought you might be Hispanic, looking for a job,” he said.
“Oh! No, I’m just traveling. Though I might not be averse to taking a job if there is one. What is it?”
“Well, I need some people to cut flowers. It has to be done quick.” He explained it’d be three or four days, and would pay pretty well, quoting a rate that was high enough that I wonder if I misheard him. But I was at least two weeks into my “Out West” leg of travel and still hadn’t made it out west, and I was getting a little antsy for that. So I told him I had my heart set on doing that the next few days, and he said okay and almost immediately drove off, never to be seen again. Only minutes later, I regretted it. That would’ve made an amazing surprise twist to my story! With the other guys in whatever crew this guy hired, I would’ve gotten to practice my Spanish, make a little money, and learn some things about the lives of itinerant immigrants. And I even would’ve gotten a little farther west, since the flowers were near the South Dakota border.
I ended up getting to Montana within the next couple days, but the seed from that little drive-by disorientation had started growing, and I decided I would go out to where there were harvesting jobs and take one to make up for the one I’d missed in Willmar.
From various directions, I learned that the place to go would be the Yakima Valley in Washington, where they grow fruit. Mostly they’re famous for apples, and you may have seen the occasional “Washington” sticker on an apple you’ve had. But they grow a few other fruits there: pears, peaches, nectarines.
I rode into Yakima with a guy who was heading to Denver to see his girlfriend. My main thought as we got close to town was: This does not look like a very promising place for fruit orchards. It was desert country; all up and down the steep valleys along the highway, the only plants I could see were shin-high tufts of sagebrush, green dots scattered over the drab, dry earth. I thought perhaps we’d round a bend and come to a suddenly lush area, a river running through a green valley with trees on all sides, but it was sagebrush all the way to Yakima. I found a spot to camp and went to sleep.
The next morning I got on the job hunt. What everyone had told me when I mentioned I wanted to pick fruit was that that sounded like a good idea, because there was so much fruit, and they had to attract people from far and wide every year to get it all out of the trees. For all that, though, the orchard owners sure weren’t mobbing me. I spent a whole day getting the runaround. I checked first with DSHS, a government agency I’d been recommended to ask at. They told me to go to an employment agency across town, WorkSource. When I got there, I filled out a long, pointless form and then waited to talk with someone on staff there. The guy I talked to looked at my form, told me I didn’t have the three months’ picking experience wanted by the two fruit companies that were staffing through them, and shredded my form. He told me to check out any of four staffing agencies in town. So I walked to one of those, where a wide-eyed woman told me, “Sorry, this isn’t the kind of place where you can just walk in and get a job on the spot… but, you’re such a beautiful person… are you traveling?” She gave me some Cheez-It-type snacks and a weird feeling, and directed me to one of the other agencies. The next one was just a big concrete-gray room where people were watching a safety instructional video, and gave me an inhospitable “We could fit you in on Monday”. I took a bus back to where I’d started and tried another agency, where I got told once more that they don’t do that and you have to come in for an interview sometime, at which point I concluded that these employment agencies serve only as a barrier to actual employment. But he was also able to tell me that, up that hill there, there are couple orchards where I could ask.
So I walked up the hill. The main orchard had a boutiquey front building where an nice old woman told me she was pretty sure they had a full crew already, but I might try the orchard next door. There I stepped into an actual orchard for the first time. None of the trees were more than about ten feet tall, and all the ones I could see were empty of fruit, because there was a crew of several people going in and out of the trees picking it. One guy was on a tractor stacking and lining up massive wooden bins of pears. I hailed him and he stopped, and told me that unfortunately he was all crewed up and almost done picking. But he suggested that I might have some luck a little further west in the next town over.
I hitched there with a guy who had to do a couple errands first, like giving a card to the vet who had to put down his daughter’s horse last week. Thanks to that, we came into town by an unusual route that went by some huge fruit warehouses with thousands of bins stacked in front of them. I decided to try a new approach, and went into the office of one of them, where truckers were going in and out and getting slips indicating the weight of their load of fruit, and also two women, one of them a midget, delivered a couple dozen homemade cookies for the employees. The woman behind the desk told me she’d ask her boss and call me then. While I waited, I went across the street to another warehouse. I asked the woman behind this desk, “I was just wondering if you know of anyone who needs fruit pickers?” She was just about to say no, but then a guy standing on my left pointed to a guy standing on my right and said, “This guy.” This Guy asked if I’d ever picked before and if I had transportation, both questions with unflattering answers, but he still told me the address of a “pear block” where there would be some picking tomorrow at six in the morning.
Hitching, bussing, and walking, I got there some hours later, a little before dark. Exhausted from all the runaround, I wrote in my journal and went straight to sleep in the trees.
I woke up a little after five in the morning so as not to be sleeping in the orchard when everyone got there to start picking. In the chilly predawn, I sat by the side of the road waiting for people to show up. I didn’t know who they would be, or how many, or when they’d show up. The sheer mysterious anticipation was enough to keep me interested and awake, if not energetic. Around 5:30, they appeared: cars, pickups, and SUVs of extremely miscellaneous appearance. I followed them down the dirt path to the other side of the orchard and out came Mexicans, exclusively Mexicans, not a word of English to be heard. I told a couple of them I was there to pick fruit. They basically said, “Okay,” and then stopped paying any attention whatsoever to me. Eventually everyone got word that they should congregate at the other parking lot, where I’d been waiting before. There I asked around and met the boss of the crew, also a Mexican, and he told me that I could probably pick, depending on how many people showed up. Somewhere north of thirty-five eventually did, and we all gathered in a big circle to hear the rules imposed by this particular fruit company (Del Monte). This all happened in Spanish, so I missed a couple of them, but I got the gist: no smoking in the orchard, no peeing, no eating outside food (especially not fruit), no using pears that have touched the ground. And then, all of them knowing just what they were doing, they got their fruit-picking sacks, selected a ladder each, headed out into the trees, and started picking pears.
I didn’t have a sack, so one had to be found for me, which took a couple hours. I hadn’t even thought about it, but a proper sack is something you can’t pick fruit without, at least industrially. It hangs at your waist, so when you pick a pear you throw it, in a way that feels fairly natural, into your lap, or where your lap would be if you weren’t standing up most of the time. I watched the process while I waited for my own sack: once it’s full, you take it to your big wooden bin and empty it out, and then go back to the tree, probably reposition your ladder so it’s near more fruit, and get back to work filling up that sack.
Once I got a sack, I went at it with top energy. I figured it wouldn’t take too long for that to flag, but for a while I was almost making up for my inexperience at picking fruit with sheer energy. But within a few hours, I turned out to be right and I settled into a more consistent, beaten-down pattern. See, despite how useful it is, the sack is also the one thing that does the most to make fruit-picking really suck. Because this is not a small sack: when it’s full, it’s probably got fifty pounds of pears in it. You could empty it out more frequently, but then you’d slow yourself down and get paid less. So you’re stuck in a tree with a sack that hangs from what seems to be exactly the most sensitive part of your shoulders, getting heavier and heavier while your upper back gets (over the hours and days) achier and achier.
I slowly discovered the other things that I’d never expected. Here’s one: pear trees ooze sticky, sugary sap from every twig, and you’re spending your entire day right up in the leaves and branches. By lunchtime each day my hands were pretty much the dirtiest they’ve ever been, all the way up to the elbows, covered in stickiness with pearwood debris and dust ground into it, so filthy that I tried to avoid touching any other part of myself. Luckily there was a little water available so I could clean my hands enough to face the thought of eating lunch with them.
I learned about the nature of pears on the tree. First off, these trees have so many pears on them. We’re talking at least a few hundred on each tree. A lot of times you can’t pick one without inadvertently knocking one or four others out of the tree just by touching them a little. You can spend a solid couple minutes or more harvesting the pears off of just one branch. I don’t know how long it took to breed pear trees that are so absurdly fecund, but they seem to me like genetic freaks, along the lines of the Komondor breed of dreadlock-dog or the plants that grow pumpkins weighing eighteen hundred pounds. Of course, that’s par for the course for industrial agriculture, but you don’t think of pears as being produced by the same efficiency-first strategies that give us monocultures of corn.
It is monocultures out there, though, more or less—acres of just pears, nothing to replenish the soil; I can only assume massive loads of fertilizers are trucked in each year. And they’re also grown in a climate that I find absolutely puzzling. It never stopped being desertland out here; all around the orchards are yellowed, dried pastures. They irrigate the hell out of these orchards. I can’t quite fathom where they get all the water. One waterway I saw, with the headscratcher of a name Lmuma Creek, was completely dry; there was also the Yakima River and the Naches River, and I didn’t see them to know where their water levels were, but I can’t imagine there was much left in them after the hundreds or maybe thousands of orchards in the valley each took their share. I guess it all works out, but at what cost to the ecosystem? Can it be done forever?
Genetic oddness aside, something else I discovered immediately is that we weren’t picking these pears ripe. Pears are a soft fruit when they’re ripe, the kind of fruit that wouldn’t really stand up well to being tossed into a giant bin and then having a thousand pounds of other pears piled on top of it. The pears in these trees were as hard as raw potatoes. They were basically indestructible. In Stuffed and Starved, a book I recently read about the world’s food system, the author laments that there are incredibly delicious varieties of apples that almost nobody will ever experience because supermarkets won’t buy them because they just don’t ship well. They go bad too quickly, or they’re too soft to withstand the shipping, or they don’t do well if you refrigerate them. You end up with only a select few really durable varieties that have proven to sell well. I assume the same thing has happened with pears. I don’t actually know for sure what variety I was picking; I think they were Bartletts. That and Anjou are probably the only two varieties of pear you can name unless you pay unusually close attention to pears. We’re not getting a lot in the way of choices. And for all that sturdiness, these weren’t even the kind that are attractive enough, in the end, to be profitable when sold fresh. All the pears I picked will end up canned. Some yet more special variety is the kind you buy to eat on its own.
From a more practical standpoint as I picked them, I also learned that pears do not like to relinquish their hold on their tree. Before I started picking, a guy I asked who had experience with various fruits told me that apples were the worst one to pick, and peaches were the best. I think he can’t have possibly picked pears. This orchard had a few rows of apples too, and when I picked them it was so much easier than picking pears. My first day and a half or so, I would yank on the pear with everything I had, and all that would happen would be that the branch would bend down to my chest (and of course shake off all the more cooperative pears located elsewhere along its length). I sometimes had to use both hands, one on the pear and one on the branch, a highly inefficient use of my hands. Later I discovered there’s a sort of twisting motion you can use to make the stem snap where it would naturally dehisce. That works at least most of the time, if you get the direction right. But picking still goes pretty slow.
It went slow for me, at least. The size of these bins is hard to get used to. Even before you start trying to fill one, it looks massive, easily big enough for four children to squeeze into. (Elementary schools might look into this as a way to save on transportation costs for long-distance field trips.) Once you start emptying your sack into it, you start to truly appreciate how many pears fit into that space. It takes four or five backbreaking loads of pears brought down from the tree before you even cover the bottom. Getting them up to the top of the bin always took me at least about three hours, more like four in the beginning.
The pay for filling one bin is eighteen dollars.
I worked for most of the time with no clear idea of how fast the rest of the pickers were going. I picked two bins a day on my first three days, since they were somewhat shortened and I was still learning. On the third day, I picked three, and felt victorious though at the price of totally destroyed shoulder muscles. I couldn’t even turn my head in certain directions. I sat in the parking area to wait for the guy who would take me home, and another picker came out of the trees to go home. After some perfunctory greetings, he asked me, “How many bins did you pick today?”
“Three, and two each day before that, but I’m new and I’m learning.”
He nodded. “Mm. Today I picked six.”
I boggled. “Really? Whoa.”
“Yep. Here are the slips. See?” Just in case I really wanted proof that I wasn’t good at this. “Tomorrow if it doesn’t rain I might pick eight. One day I picked twelve!”
And here I’d thought I was doing pretty well. “Super-picker,” I told him a bit glumly.
“Pretty much,” he said. “Well, you’ve got to make lots of money. And it’s good exercise too.” He did look like he was in excellent shape. Some people say a man is made out of mud / A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood / Muscle and blood and skin and bone / A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong.
So if you’re ever tempted to think that Mexicans are shiftless or lazy, consider how your pears got off the tree and into that can. It’s something I’d never really considered before. What comes between a fruit growing on its tree and appearing in the store? Well (I might once have said, if pressed), it falls off or some kind of machine shakes it down or something, and then somehow or other they get collected and go to the store. If humans had to pick them, in my imagination, it was a pretty simple job that couldn’t take more than a few minutes per tree, because surely they came off easily and there was some super-efficient way of collecting them and it was all smoothly industrialized. Nope, your fruit comes off its tree the old-fashioned way: a poor person physically grabs it and pulls it off. Next time you go to buy apples or pears or peaches, look at the price and consider how hard the work was that went into that number, and who was the person willing to get dirty enough to do it, day after day, season after season.
There’s not really anything I’m saying you should change about your relationship with fruit. In fact, even the pesticide situation didn’t seem too horrible. I talked a bit with the area orchard manager, the sole white guy I saw involved in the whole process (besides the one in the warehouse), and he told me that back in the ’60s, his father used to go into the orchards with his partner, spraying DDT everywhere with a giant hose. Sometimes it would get hot and they would spray it on each other. Nowadays there’s only one pesticide left that they’re allowed to use that’s proven to be harmful to humans, and they use that one several months before the picking. That’s not to say that the other pesticides they’re still allowed to use are good for you just because the FDA says there’s nothing wrong with them; almost certainly you’d be better off without them. But they actually seem like they’ve made pretty good strides in doing things responsibly. There’s a moth that bores into the developing fruits to lay its eggs, and then its larvae eat the fruit and ruin it. Some genius solved this problem for them: they hang little plastic loops throughout the orchard that are full of tremendous amounts of this moth’s female pheromones. The moths still come into the orchard, but when a male looks for a female, it can’t find her because everything smells like female moth, and so the male just flies around aimlessly and they both end up dying sexually frustrated but at least not poisoned, and no eggs are laid.
Now, that said, I’m still concerned about how much water and fertilizer needs to get moved in order to make these pears, and fruit from your farmers’ market would be way better, and farmers’ markets do remain the way of the future and you should really buy all your groceries from them. But that’s not the lesson I’m particularly drawing from my four days in the pear orchards. All I’m pointing out right now is that between the tree and your can of pears, there’s a lot more than just a magical teleportation, and you probably never thought about it. I know I didn’t.