From Pick to Pack: The Process of Lychee Harvest
5:00 AM: Gathering
Shortly after 5 AM, the first harvesters on a crew of about 25 at Emperor’s Choice Lychee will begin to arrive at the farm, soon making their way to the large veranda at the center of the property where the day begins. The veranda is not only shelter from sun and rain; it is the central hub for the workers. Well before any lychees are actually picked, the harvesters will relax, banter with one another, have breakfast, or make a cup of hot tea provided by the farm owners. On the far wall of the veranda are hung several cross-stitched plaques embroidered with the names of lychee crews of seasons past. Some names recur year after year, and could even be called upon under the veranda this season. These plaques stand as a testament to the faithfulness of this crew, many who come back season after season.
On the tackboard in the veranda, above the timesheet, is posted the worker assignments for the day—which duty we must perform, which location in the orchard we’ll be harvesting, who we’ll be working with, and what type of ladder we’ll be using. Work begins promptly at 5:30 AM with nothing but a brief word from the farm owners to introduce the day. Before that moment occurs, we all ready ourselves by covering up with sunscreen or rain jackets, grabbing a pair of latex gloves to protect our hands from the rough fruit, and donning our heavy burlap picking bags. As 5:30 draws nears, we cross our fingers for good weather for the morning. Unlike other fruits, lychee harvest is not dependent on the weather—harvest will occur on days that are unseemly hot under a glaring sun, or on days in a drenching rain. When the fruit is ripe, it all needs to be harvested no matter the weather. This means that for a few short but intense weeks from late-January to early February, lychee harvest can occur any day and every day.
The Orchard Veranda, where workers gather to take a break
5:30 AM to 9:30 AM (approximate): Harvesting
The first four hours of the day are spent bringing the fruit in from the orchard. It’s best to do this early in the morning, mainly for two reasons: workers can get hot and fatigued in the beating Queensland sun, and the fruit picks easiest in the coolness of morning (cool being relative, since the Sunshine Coast really never does get ‘cool’, even overnight). When cool, the individual lychee will snap off crisply from its branch. This makes picking the fruit easier and it also reduces the likelihood of pulling the small stem off of the fruit. Fruit with pulled stems cannot be sent to market, resulting in a good piece of fruit being rendered unsellable.
During the morning harvest period, workers can be assigned to either one of two different harvest tasks: single picking or panicle picking. Single picking, as its name implies, means the lychee fruit is picked singly off the tree. This type of picking is best done from the ground or on a short ladder, where the fruit is in easy reach. Single-picked fruit is ready for grading and packing, and will provide for immediate processing work in the packing shed later in the day. The other type of picking is called panicle picking (panicle is a botanical term for how the fruit is clustered). Panicle pickers cut the fruiting branches directly off the tree to be brought back to the packing shed. Though it feels counterproductive to cut the fruiting branches off the tree, the bushy growth of the lychee trees allows them to recover and bear more fruit in future seasons. Panicle pickers will use tall ladders to go up to the tops of the trees and clip off all the fruit that the single pickers can’t reach, which makes getting all the hard-to-reach fruit off the trees very efficient. Although some markets will sell lychees on panicles, at Emperor’s Choice all fruit is packed and shipped as singles. Thus, fruit picked in panicles still needs to be ‘destalked’ before being ready for grading and packing. Depending on how big the fruit order of the day is to fill, morning harvest goes until somewhere between 9:00 and 9:30 AM.
9:30 AM to 10:00 AM: Smoko
Our first break of the day, half an hour in length, is known in Aussie slang as smoko: the smoke break. A siren will wail in the fields, signaling the pickers to head back to the veranda for a break before the packing work of the day begins. Taking a 30-minute break here affords the workers some rest, but it is also a strategic break for bringing in the rest of the fruit from the fields. During smoko, there is one last tractor pick-up in the orchard to collect the remainder of the fruit that has been harvested in the morning. The tractor will bring all crates of picked fruit to the packing shed, where they are stacked onto a pallet, sprayed down with water, and put into a cold room for storage.
10:30 AM to Noon: Packing
At 10:30 am, smoko is over. Getting back to work takes no directive from the farm owners. Rather, like a flock of birds, once one worker starts walking to the packing shed, the rest will follow en masse. The tackboard that detailed our picking assignments for the morning also details our packing assignments. Once at the packing shed, we report to our various duty stations to pack the day’s pick of fruit for market.
The first major step in packing is to get the panicle-picked fruit ready for grading by picking the individual fruits off the branches in a process known as ‘destalking’. A pallet of panicle-picked crates is taken from the cold room to the destalking station, where about half of the picking team is lined-up along two large troughs about one foot wide and twenty feet long. We grab a crate full of the cold, wet panicles and begin picking the fruit off the branch. The destalked fruit is thrown into the trough, while the stems are tossed into a rubbish bin for composting. The floor of the troughs, lined with rubber, slopes down at a gradual incline to an opening in the middle the size of a small crate. The individual fruits bounce and roll their way into the crate at the bottom of this opening and are moved on for the grading process (and it really is amusing to watch the lychees bounce their way down the trough, as if we were picking a bunch of pink golf balls off tree branches). Leaves, twigs, and other debris get stuck on the rubber mat and (usually) don’t fall it into the small crate of single fruits—this simple mechanical trough invention really does a wonder in separating the fruit from the debris.
Workers de-panicle the lychee fruit outside the packing shed. Lychee branches are stored in the blue crates. Once the fruit is picked off the branch, lychees are put into the trough where they roll down into an orange crate.
Once the fruit is destalked, it is ready to be graded and packed. At the near end of the grading table, full crates of individual fruit are loaded into a hopper, where a conveyer belt jostles the fruit around up an incline and onto the grading table itself at a constant rate. Any leaves or debris that happen to still be mixed in with the fruit is apt to fall through the small cracks between the conveyer belts or be picked out by hand, which leaves a crop of mostly clean fruit (though the fruits themselves are never actually washed). Under the bright lights of the grading table, the five ladies of the crew quickly inspect each piece of fruit as it passes by on the rapidly moving conveyor (and yes they are all ladies. Packing shed assignments were done in such a manner to reduce any heavy lifting required for female workers). Damaged, spotted, or doubled fruit is quickly thrown off the conveyer into a rubbish bin. Fruits that do not have flaws, but only happen to be off-color are put onto a different conveyer that leads to a different box. This different box is called ‘seconds’ and contains the fruit that is saleable, but not aesthetically appealing enough to fetch top dollar at a fresh fruit market.
The remaining fruits that have made the grade continue along the conveyer belt, falling into another hopper. From this hopper, the fruit makes its way 5-kilograms at a time onto another conveyer belt that drops the fruit into a medium-sized box designed for market. The box full of lychees then travels along yet another conveyer belt where it passes through the stages of receiving a plastic seal and being capped by a lid. The finished boxes of lychees are then loaded onto a pallet and stored in a cold room, awaiting a refrigerated truck to take them to market. In total, the entire process a single lychee will go through, from being loaded into the initial hopper to being placed into a market-ready box, takes approximately ten minutes.
Inside the packing shed. Orange crates full of individual lychees are loaded into a hopper, where a conveyor belt takes them to the grading table. Towards the back of the packing line, a stack of black boxes wait to be filled with fruit.
Noon to 12:30 PM: Lunch
A half hour break for lunch, nothing more. Lunchtime may vary depending on the rate and amount of packing work to be done. The ladies on the grading table are generally faster than the destalkers, and will sort through all of the single fruit faster than panicle fruit can be destalked. Once the grading ladies catch up to the destalkers, they will hop on to the destalking troughs and help destalk the fruit in order to speed up the process. When this happens, lunch is usually called for. After lunch the grading ladies will continue to destalk until enough fruit is ready for grading such that by the time they finish sorting their crates of single fruit, all remaining panicle fruit will have been destalked and made ready for packing. In this way, the daily tasks in the packing shed are structured such that all workers will finish within 15 minutes of one another, if the timing is calculated right.
1:00 PM to 3:00 PM: Done!
The amount of hours we work in a day varies depending on how much fruit we need to pick and pack, a typical day being 4,000+ metric tonnes of lychees sent to market. But, we always have an early afternoon finish. This harvest schedule allows plenty of time in the afternoon to hit the beach after a hard day of work!