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.