Monthly Archives: January 2016
No, strawberries don’t grow on trees.
And no, oddly-shaped golf balls don’t grow on trees either.
This is a fruit—and probably an unfamiliar one to most my readers. It’s a Lychee (pronounced “Lie-Chee” in Australia rather than “Lee-Chee” as in the United States). This fruit will be both on my mind and in my hands for the next month during the harvest season.
The lychee is a tropical to subtropical fruit native to southern China. Records in China indicate that the fruit has been cultivated as far back as 2000 BC. The fruit was a favourite delicacy in some Imperial Courts, and, in the case of one 1st century emperor, a special ‘pony express’ was set up at great cost to transport the fresh fruit to the court from the south. It is thus fitting that the farm I now work is called Emperor’s Choice Lychees.
With its sub-tropical climate, year-round growing season, bountiful sunshine, and ample rainfall, the lychee is fit to grow in Queensland, Australia as well. The fruit is grown on trees—or more properly, shrubby trees that reach about 20 feet tall. In January, the fruit becomes ready for harvest, turning pinkish-red in an attractive contrast to the glossy dark-green foliage. The plentiful fruit is borne on clustered branch-tips known as panicles. During lychee harvest, workers will either pick the fruit off the tree singly, or cut the panicles directly of the tree. The lychee tree branches are also dense and flexible enough to support a 16-foot bow ladder propped directly on the branches to reach the highest fruit.
A hedge-row of trees in the lychee orchard
As a native and popular Chinese fruit, it makes sense that the farm I work for exports their entire crop to China. Though I’ve seen lychees for sale in Australian supermarkets, the fruit hasn’t seemed to have broken into mainstream US grocery stores yet. In the States, the most reliable place to find the fruit are the Chinatown markets. In fact, New York City’s Chinatown was the source of my first introduction to lychees. Nearly five years ago, when was I interning for a summer in suburban New York, one of my fellow interns (partly of Chinese descent) would bring back curious Chinese fruit from Chinatown for the other interns to sample. One time the fruit to try was lychees. From my first mouthful of the juicy sweet fruit, I was hooked. Of course I would jump at the opportunity to harvest lychees for a season when the possibility would come up in Australia.
Me happily harvesting some lychees
Lychees imported into the States from overseas markets do taste good—but they pale in comparison to the taste of a lychee plucked off the branch only minutes beforehand. The fruit itself comes pre-packaged in its own tough, pinkish-red inedible skin, which is covered in coarse bumps and rough to the touch (also making for tender hands for the harvester). Pierce through the protective skin with a fingernail and peel away the top half of the skin to reveal the gelatinous, translucent white-hued fruit inside (and make sure you don’t eat any of the skin. If you do accidentally, then you’ll get a fleeting taste of potpourri before your mouth becomes astringently bitter). With the top half of the skin peeled away, squeeze the bottom of the fruit to pop the entire morsel into your mouth. This is quite easy to do, as the fruit itself is not attached to the skin except for at the base of the seed. Now, enjoy your lychee. You’ll find the fruit to be sugary-sweet and juicy, with a taste that can be best described as a natural version of artificial ‘blue-raspberry’ flavour. Using your tongue, work the lychee around your mouth to separate the flesh from the glossy brown seed the size and shape of an almond. Spit the seed out and admire its sheen. Now it’s time to enjoy your next lychee!
Next time you’re in the supermarket, try and look for the exotic little fruit called a lychee. And if you can’t find it, a trip to the nearest Chinatown street market may be in order.
“I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
and see what there is to see”
—Jack Johnson in “Breakdown”
The inevitable backpacker van event has occurred to me: The Breakdown. It couldn’t have occurred at a much worse time than it did, late in the evening the day before I was supposed to start a long-awaited harvest gig early the next morning. But then the location was actually quite convenient. I’ve heard tales of backpacker vans melting down in the far remote outback, with no services for hundreds of kilometers. I happened to break down in the middle of suburbia.
This wasn’t the typical garden-variety breakdown either. This was what’s called the “catastrophic breakdown”. Upon inspection by a mechanic, it turns out the timing belt in the engine broke and warped the engine cylinders. Before this happened, I didn’t even know what a timing belt was, let alone its importance in an engine. It turns out, though, that the timing belt is the piece of equipment that keeps the engine’s moving parts in sync. A broken timing belt equals moving engine parts clanging against each other. It also equals a $3,000 charge for replacing the engine.
But when the timing belt snapped and Frank’s engine turned its last, we were quite fortunate to be on the busiest commercial highway along Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Using Frank’s momentum, I managed to steer off the main road into a 7-11 parking lot. There I found myself ‘stranded’. Without my own set of wheels I was limited to where I could walk on foot—or to travel with the extensive bus transit network. Though I was without a vehicle, everything I needed was within walking distance on that main street—coffee shops, grocers, convenience stores, parks, car rentals, hostels, surf shops, furniture outlets, rug stores—and much more. I was even about a kilometer away from the repair shop (though I still needed the tow).
A long-time favorite musician of mine, Jack Johnson, holds a rather romantic notion of breakdowns, singing about taking the opportunity to get out and explore the world on foot instead of in high speed transit. But I’m doubtful Jack Johnson was daydreaming about breaking down in the midst of California-style suburban sprawl. Getting stranded nearly halfway between two of the Sunshine Coast’s major beach cities, the landscape has developed into a suburban dream of strip malls and Aussie big box stores that punctuate endless tracts of brick-fenced single-family homes. Not to mention that the wide, high traffic capacity streets and discontinuous sidewalks make pedestrian touring exceedingly difficult.
Personally, rather than looking at the opportunity for adventure that a breakdown affords (as I was more inclined to do when I was younger and broken down with friends), I more often view breakdowns as a hindrance. True, I’ve been through the stranded-from-car-trouble game a few times before. This resume of mine includes getting stuck in the ditch twice (in two different vehicles), and getting stranded after mechanical failure twice more (in an additional two different vehicles). In fact, on a long road trip I usually anticipate such car trouble to occur—and I’ll feel like I missed out on something if nothing goes wrong on a long trip.
Whether seen as a hindrance or opportunity, the breakdown does have its way of (forcibly) taking you off your own well-planned schedule and creating a new experience for you. Thus, when you face the inevitable breakdowns in life, do you dwell on the costs and inconveniences of the situation? Or do you use it as a path towards something you likely wouldn’t have done otherwise?
As far as Frank breaking down goes, it’s a mixture of both. No longer able to camp in my van while it’s in the repair shop, I had to take the only affordable and available accommodation I could find in a resort community during peak season. Sure my temporary accommodation’s among the lousiest of hostels I’ve ever stayed in, but I’ve gotten to meet many more people than I would have if I stuck to my van. And sure, the section of town I’m staying in now feels like Los Angeles sprawl, but there are many unique local eateries and enterprises hidden amongst the strip malls and traffic-clogged streets. I wouldn’t have noticed these things if I had merely driven through as a passerby. In the end, I’ll get to know a new area of Australia more intimately via foot. Plus, I’ll have walking access to some beautiful surf beaches every day after work.
Listen to “Breakdown” by Jack Johnson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4O7ufx9D_s
Over the course of the cherry season, I harvested on four different farms and worked for three different labour contractors (I was never directly employed by the cherry farmers themselves. Rather, most farmers hire contract crews for the duration of the harvest season. The contractor hires the harvesters and manages their pay, freeing the farmer to only coordinate with the contractors). Thus, I’m not an expert on cherry economics, but I do have an idea of how a few different farms and contractors operate. From my experience, here’s some basic statistical explorations and speculations about “cherry-conomics”:
I was in Orange, New South Wales for the cherry season for 23 days. I only worked for a total of 17 days though, because some days no cherries were ripe, some days it was raining, and some days I just needed a break. Over the course of my tenure, I earned $1,936—that equates to $113.88 per day I worked, or $84.17 per day I was in Orange. For days I did get to work, there was a great range of wages earned—from a low of $35 to a high of $185. A lot of this wage variability depended on the hours worked. Not every day of work was a full day. Some days were short because all the ripe cherries were quickly picked. Other days were cut short when noon rain showers rolled in. Conversely, other days were long because the farmer wanted to finish harvesting a certain variety on that particular day. As a result, on any given day I picked cherries from three to twelve hours.
As far as compensation, I was paid on a piece rate. The Australian agricultural minimum wage is $21 per hour, but employers are also allowed to pay workers on an equivalent piece rate. The piece rate is calculated based on the amount of fruit an average worker can pick in one hour to equal the minimum hourly wage. From the different farms and contractors I worked for, I surmise that the equivalent piece rate is about $1.10 per kilogram of cherries picked. A well-seasoned cherry picker can easily exceed the hourly minimum wage. As a novice, though, I had trouble matching that rate. Some days, when the cherries being harvested were large and plentiful, I could earn upwards of $25 per hour. However, over the course of the whole season, I estimate that I earned an average of $15 to $17 per hour. Though I was disappointed I couldn’t meet the equivalent minimum standard, when compared to the $10 per hour I was making in the States, I was quite happy with the wages.
(As a side note, at the going rate of $1.10 per kilogram, I would have picked an estimated 1,760 kilograms of cherries, or about 3,880 pounds).
That’s how I fared statistically as a worker. The other side of the equation is the profit from the cherries.
From prices I’ve seen in the grocery stores, a kilogram of cherries will sell for about $12 (note that this is for fresh local cherries, not export cherries or process cherries). Of this price, the harvester will get somewhere around 10% of the retail value. The other costs of the cherries include the growing costs, transportation costs, and retail markup, of which I have no idea about costs. But everyone gets a cut on the cost of cherries as they go through the worker to the labour contractor, to the farmer, to the packer, to the distributor, and then finally to the retailer.
However, I was able to learn a little bit about the cut of the cherry price that labour contractors get. I’ll use the example of the farm I worked at where I learned the most. At this particular farm, cherries were harvested in 8-kilogram ‘lugs’. My contractor negotiated with the farm to pick these lugs at a cost of $13.75. Of this $13.75, I was paid $10 to pick the 8-kilogram lug. This equates to $1.25 per kilogram picked (note: at another farm I was only paid $1.00 per kilogram, but since the fruit was larger and easier to pick, I still earned better money). Thus, for every lug of cherries I picked, I earned my contractor $3.75. Since I picked 84 lugs of cherries with this particular contractor, I earned him $315 over 10 days of employment with him. As a worker, I would have liked to earned that extra $3.75 per lug. But, when middlemen take their cut as contractors, the wages payed to workers take a cut.
And finally, one speculation on the cherry business. At this particular farm with the 8-kilogram lugs, an average tree would yield six lugs, or about 48 kilograms of cherries (106 pounds). At an average retail value of $12 per kilogram, each cherry tree would produce around $576 worth of fruit annually. Multiply this amount per tree by the hundreds to thousands of trees in an orchard, and the value of just a few acres of fruit trees becomes obvious.
I like to think of fruit picking as a gold rush of sorts: Boom or Bust.
The promise of a ‘boom’ is the reason a lot of foreign workers (including backpackers) and Australian citizens pick fruit—there is good money to be earned. A good harvest season can be a boon to the workers, as thousands of dollars of fruit can be picked in just a few weeks. The backpackers will use this money to finance an extended holiday, some Australians use the windfall to support a semi-working lifestyle, and other foreign workers will save the money to send back home. So far I’ve heard numerous tales of people picking up to $500 worth of fruit in one day—and over the cherry season I worked with a guy who regularly picked $300 worth of fruit per day.
But the harvest season can also go bust. The picking can be there one day, but then suddenly disappear due to myriad circumstances. Thus, the biggest ‘bust’ with fruit picking is the uncertainty of the labour itself. Frankly, the fruit doesn’t care about whether there are workers ready and waiting to harvest; the fruit ripens at its own pace, and is indifferent to becoming overripe as well. Likewise, the weather doesn’t care about harvest season either. Unfavourable weather can scrap a day of picking even when the fruit is perfectly ripe. Finally, market factors are also at play. If there is no market demand for fruit at the time, the crop will remain unharvested even if all other factors are favourable to harvest. Thus, a worker’s schedule is at the behest of many outside factors, making a regular work schedule somewhat of a fantasy. Willing workers end up waiting around for the fruit to ripen, the weather to clear, or market demand to kick in. But once harvesting conditions become ideal, it literally pays to be there. And if you aren’t ready in that moment, you’ll miss out on the boom.
The locality where I harvested cherries, Orange, New South Wales, was no exception to the fickleness of harvest labour. With a delicate crop like cherries, the old farmers’ nemesis of foul weather wrecked its havoc. Orange had a particularly wet summer harvest season. With too much rain, ripe cherries will swell and split. Additionally, if the cherries stay wet for too long, mold and fungus will attack them (this later problem, I learned, is a big enough concern that it justifies the cost of cherry farmers flying a helicopter just above the tops of the cherry trees in order to blow the excess water off).
With periodic days of steady rain (and a hailstorm) during the harvest season, things were going pretty rough for the Orange cherry farmers. Already I had to switch farms after an isolated hailstorm destroyed that particular crop I was harvesting. Then for a while things were going good, as the cherries were ripe, the weather was clear, and the cherries were in demand. But, 2½ days of heavy drizzle around Christmas time temporarily ceased harvest operations and seemed to spell the end of cherry season in Orange. Fortunately, in spite of the rain (and perhaps with the help of the farmers’ helicopters) it seemed as though the cherries survived. Full-scale harvest operations resumed after the rain for a couple of days, and there were still enough cherries remaining on the trees for two weeks of solid work. Conditions were seeming good once again.
Conditions were good, except that in order for the farm to sell the cherries, there needed to be a willing buyer for the fruit. Thus, one day after picking operations at the farm resumed full scale, the cherry harvest ended once again. The buyer of the cherry farm’s fruit, a cherry packer based in Melbourne, suddenly refused to buy the fruit. After sorting out the split and moldy cherries, the Melbourne packer found that it didn’t get enough quality fruit to make it economical to keep buying from the farm. Thus, as soon as the farm manager got the call from the packer with the news, the farm manager had to go around the orchards telling all the workers to drop immediately everything they were picking. With no buyer for the cherries, there would be no money coming into the farm to pay the workers for any further picking. Thus, cherry season ended a second time, for economic reasons. This occurred in spite of acres of trees left to harvest all containing good fruit mixed with the bad.
But, it turns out cherry season wasn’t over after all. The farm, as expected, did not want all of its fruit to rot on the trees. To recoup operational costs, the farm needed to salvage as much cherries as they could. So the farm negotiated a lower cost of fruit to their packer, and picking operations resumed yet again. The resumption of work was bittersweet news for the pickers. Even though there was work to do again, the lower value of the fruit meant that each worker would now get paid less for the same amount of work as before. But, when the choice comes between low paid work and no work at all, there will always be those who have no choice but to take the lower-paid work.
My experience working the cherry harvest in Orange highlights the biggest downside to this boom-and-bust cycle of fruit harvest labour: the uncertainty. This labour is not a 9 to 5 weekday job. Instead, you have to live your life around the unforeseeable schedule of work. You either end up working all the time for a short while, or you end up with no work to do for days on end. When the picking is there, you have to be able to take it in order to make your living. The fruit won’t wait for you. And even if it did, other people would pick that fruit before you to earn more money for themselves.
For these reasons, harvest labor is well suited to the flexible itinerant backpacker or the handful of professional Aussie fruit pickers who decided the lifestyle worked for them. One can’t place a schedule around the fruit harvest season, nor can one really plan that much around it. And, unless you live in a really rich and diverse agricultural area, work will usually not be year-round. As it happens, such uncertainty of the economic viability of harvest labour makes it very difficult to live traditionally or with much certainty.
In Australia, the bulk of the harvest labor seems to come from individuals who find the nomadic and uncertain agricultural work accommodating to their lifestyle. Yet, I have met many foreign guest workers and Australian residents who have had to pick fruit as their main means of economic survival. As unskilled labor with plenty of easy jobs to get, fruit harvest labour may sometimes be all people have available to them. This situation isn’t limited to Australia either. I’m thinking of all the individuals in the United States alone who do harvest labour for their livelihood. Under such employment circumstances, it’s extremely difficult to build a traditional lifestyle off of the uncertainty—such as challenges of instability from moving around to find work, and supporting a family on variable harvest employment.
One thing I will take away from this experience is a greater sympathy for the basic challenges of individuals who have to do agricultural labour as their economic means of survival. Somehow there has got to be a way to make it easier for such people to live.