Life is (not) Always a Bowl of Cherries
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.