A Picture of Efficiency
For compensation at Emperor’s Choice Lychee, I was paid an hourly rate rather than on a piece rate (i.e., payment according to the amount of fruit picked) like I was on the cherry farms. Though the physical tasks of picking lychee and cherries were not dissimilar, the method of compensation made a world of difference in terms of the work environment. I must admit that I enjoyed extremely getting paid a wage, for it guaranteed me a certain level of income no matter the circumstances of harvest. I’ll also add that the method of compensation made the lychee harvest an experience that will be hard to beat, and the cherry harvest an experience to be avoided.
The most immediate difference with getting paid an hourly wage is that the pace of work is quite a bit more stringent. Since my employer was obligated to compensate for every minute of his employees’ time, he needed to run a tight ship in order to keep his labour costs down. Thus, on our first day of work, each new employee got acquainted with the farmer’s employment philosophy; in his own words: “Guys, believe it or not, you’re not here to earn yourselves money. You’re here to make me a profit. And if you can’t do that, then we aren’t going to get along.” The farmer did make good on his promise—he would let go of underperforming workers at any point in the season. Thus, at Emperor’s Choice, you either worked efficiently or you needed to find somewhere else to work.
But it was never our employer’s goal to sack people. Rather, employees were a big investment for the farm since they are the workers who bring in all the fruit during harvest, leading to the farm’s annual profit. The job of harvest was to be done properly and correctly, to maximize yield and minimize fruit damage. At Emperor’s Choice, employing workers directly allowed the farmer maximum control over the performance of each harvester (this in opposition to piece work, where little to no training is given to new employees and workers are typically hired by contractors instead of farmers). As investments of the farmer, new workers were properly trained in all aspects of the harvest, and employee performance was monitored throughout the season. The goal of devoting such training to all variety of harvest tasks is to create a highly-skilled workforce who can achieve high performance with minimal supervision. The farmer also knows that creating a highly trained harvest team and compensating them fairly will lead to greater employee retention from season to season. Thus, a relationship develops between the employee and employer where the employer is more akin to a coach who aids in the development of the workers’ skill. The employee, then, is a player who gives their best performance season after season.
The result of our training and the stringent pace of work at Emperor’s Choice became a picture of efficiency. If you ever found yourself standing around for more than three seconds wondering what to do, you were wasting your time—and also your employer’s money. But this situation was mostly avoided, since us workers knew all the tasks that needed to be done at any given moment. Teamwork was most important in the packing shed, and it was also where our machine-like efficiency shone the brightest. The harvest workforce formed an economy of tasks based on proximity to a job or whoever needed a ‘micro-task’ (a job taking a few seconds, like emptying garbage bins or stacking picking crates) while they were waiting on something else. Thus all manner of tasks—large and small—were accomplished without too much thinking or too much being asked. In the packing shed, workers with more skill and experience were assigned to lead up different processes, but common workers could be switched to a different task at any moment. Thus, workers were coached to have the flexibility and adaptability to fit in any part of the packing process. Since employees were very interchangeable in tasks assigned, it was thus understood that no harvest task was worth more or less than any other task (though I very well hope that some of the experienced veterans were getting paid more than me!).
When we all worked together for lychee harvest, it was quite impressive. Daily, the team of harvesters would pick and process over four metric tonnes of fruit with minimal direction from the farmer. It was a mutually cooperating environment, where we were able to celebrate with each at the end of the season for picking over 88,000 kilograms of lychee together. Being compensated on the hourly rate, there was no cut-throat competition for fruit to boost your own pay during the season. Instead, we created a positive and supportive work environment as we worked towards our communal goal, one in which we were all able to take pride in the farm operation and output.
I greatly enjoyed the change of getting paid an hourly wage. Though the workplace environment was very enjoyable, one of the downsides was that I remained uncertain of my job security throughout the entire season. Though I gave my best effort, I continued to feel uncertain if I was performing well enough to continue to be retained—especially compared to the most proficient harvesters. Such fears were heightened midseason after one worker was terminated for sub-par performance. When your performance is being closely scrutinized for efficiency, you can never be too certain if you might be the next to be let go. In contrast, job security is quite different on a piece rate; as long as you put in some effort, you’ll be retained as an employee—after all, you only get paid for the fruit you actually pick. Thus, if you want a break, go ahead—but you won’t get paid for the time you sit around smoking and eating your sandwiches in the orchard. Working on a piece rate allows one to pick leisurely and with less worry about losing the job.
Though job security is more certain on a piece rate, the biggest downside is that employers don’t respect employees’ time as they would if an hourly wage was used. For labourers on an hourly wage, the employer’s finances are respected by doing their jobs efficiently to reduce the cost of labour. This respect is reciprocated by the employer, because the employer is responsible for compensating employees’ time. An employer can assign employees to menial tasks, but remains aware that he must still fully compensate. On the contrary, the time of piece work labourers can easily be abused by an employer, because such workers are compensated based on fruit picked instead of based on hours worked. For examples of this on the cherry farms, my crew was sometimes assigned to orchard ‘clean up’. We were tasked with going back over trees that had already been picked to collect any fruit that had been missed. We, of course, still got paid by how many cherries we picked—but the problem was that there were hardly any cherries left on the trees. This led to an abysmal sum of money earned after a day’s work. Additionally, on one cherry farm the farmer would add extra tasks to the contract crew’s assignment; for example, we would be permitted only to pick cherries on the tops of the trees or we had to split clusters of cherries into single stems. These additional tasks required more time and reduced the amount of fruit we could pick in a day, though the rate of pay per amount picked remained the same. However, the cherry farmer didn’t have to pay for that extra time expended by the workers. I was informed later that this was done as a strategic decision to reduce labour costs in the packing shed.
Working on a piece rate always has the allure of a big payout if you become an exceptionally proficient fruit worker. As for me, I’d rather have my time respected as a worker and take the hourly rate. This decision isn’t based entirely on economics either, but on the workplace experience as a whole.
Left to Rot in the Fields
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, approximately one-third of all food produced globally for human consumption is wasted (about 1.3 billion tonnes). Additionally, approximately 45% of fruit and vegetable crops grown annually get wasted. Such food waste occurs on all levels of the food system, from the farmer, to the harvester, to the processer, to the retailer, and finally to the consumer. Different reasons for food wastage occur at each different level in the food system (and I encourage you to explore some of these reasons in the UN FAO report’s key findings). Among the many reasons for food wastage is the large scale economics of modern agriculture—in other words, in developed nations such as the United States and Australia, large quantities of crops need to be efficiently processed in order to fit the mechanized and standardized rigor of the industrial food system. With a food system as large and agglomerated as it is, business decisions tend to happen on a large scale for economic reasons. A great quantity of food, thus, is liable to fall through the cracks and add to the overall waste in the food system. Though my knowledge is still rudimentary, my recent experiences as a harvester on cherry and lychee farms have given me a bit of insight into how much food gets wasted on the agricultural side of the food system. This has also led me to speculate on ways to reduce food waste and divert some instead to better uses.
As I mentioned before in an earlier blog post, “Life is (not) Always a Bowl of Cherries”, the fruit at one cherry farm I was picking at suffered extensive damage from steady rain during the harvest season. The primary rain damage entailed split tops where the cherries swelled to the point where the skin burst, and a blue mold was growing on some dense clusters of damaged cherries as well. Cherries with this type of damage are unfit for commercial markets. The delicate skin of the cherry is the fruit’s protective barrier to the agents of the outside world. Once compromised, the cherries will only remain edible for a few more days. However, from my estimate after continuing to pick at the farm, less than one quarter of cherries had been affected by any sort of damage at all—the rest of the cherries survived intact and were suitable for market. Yet, the fruit packer which was buying the cherries from the farm as a bulk commodity decided that there was not a high enough percentage of good fruit to continue to buy the farm’s fruit at the agreed upon rate. Resultingly, although most of the fruit on the trees was still marketable, all of the fruit remaining on the trees was sentenced to rot in the orchard. One large-scale economic move by a large-scale fruit packer resulted in a waste of tonnes of cherries—all because it wasn’t economically efficient to sort the good fruit from the bad.
As word at the farm got spread amoung the orchard rows that that picking operations were to cease immediately because the farm had suddenly lost the buyer for its fruit, I started picking cherries directly into my backpack to take home with me. If the fruit was not destined to be sold at market, I at least wanted to put it to good use (i.e., eating it myself). So I took the good fruit along with the bad. I for one am not fussy if a cherry has a split top, and I’m not too proud to cut a bad spot out of a cherry before eating it (but I also have a long history of salvaging food out of dumpsters too). After all, blemished fruit is still perfectly edible if the blemish is small and easily excisable. My backpack full of cherries allowed me to at least reduce some food wastage by vastly reducing the scale of the economic decisions being made–to the scale ranging my bag of cherries to my mouth. The economy was whether I thought it worthwhile to eat each individual cherry or not. At this scale, I was able to examine every cherry I consumed for its merit, rather than dismissing the crop wholesale—the good fruit with the bad.
Rain damage is not the only thing that will make a cherry unacceptable for market. If a cherry is picked without its stem, that cherry most likely cannot be sold. Again, the skin is the cherry’s protective layer to the outside world, and if the stem is removed an entryway for decay is created. Though the fruit itself is every bit the same, stemless cherries differ in that they do not stay fresh as long as cherries with stems. For this reason, cherry pickers are chastised above all else about picking cherries off of their stems (but as some level of food waste is inevitable, knocking a few cherries off of their stems is essentially unavoidable). At one export farm I picked at, I was greatly perturbed when I saw a supervisor sifting through my lugs of cherries and throwing the stemless ones on the ground. Those were big, beautiful cherries thrown dispassionately into the mud. After seeing this, I felt personally convicted to eat every cherry that popped off its stem, just so those cherries wouldn’t face a similar wasteful fate. My mission in this manner proved utterly impossible, as one person himself cannot eliminate food waste. But I just couldn’t help but wonder: so many of the local cherries sold in the supermarket were without stems. Could it be that stemless cherries will stay fresh long enough to make it into the local markets but are only unfit for export?
In comparison to cherries, the lychee farm I picked at operated on a smaller scale. The farm itself was a few hundred acres and differed most notably in terms of packing operations: all lychees harvested were packed on-site rather than shipping the ungraded fruit to a large packhouse. By operating this way, the lychee farm significantly reduced the scope of the harvesting and processing stages of the food system. Amoung my responsibilities as a harvest labourer on the lychee farm, I assisted with the packing of the fruit. This allowed me to see how the freshly harvested crop gets graded and prepared for export. Unlike cherries which are graded and sorted completely by a machine, lychees on my farm were graded entirely by hand. Each piece of fruit has to make its way past six sets of eyes and hands on its journey to a 5-kilogram box for export. Not every lychee picked in the orchard makes it into a box, however, and the graders are quick to toss out any piece of fruit that is not up to export standards. Some fruits are rejected because they have been damaged, such as broken skin or insect holes. Yet, other fruits are rejected because of cosmetic reasons—some spotting, just a bit off-color, ‘doubled’ fruit, etc. The greater part of these lychee rejects are still perfectly edible, and at the end of the day the lychee workers can take home as many of the reject lychees as desired. Not all of the reject fruit will be taken home though, and the rest gets thrown into the compost pile. Still the amount of fruit thrown out is smaller than a garbage bin full, and that’s not a bad quantity for a farm that processes more than 4 tonnes of lychees per day. Having each fruit examined by hand can reduce the amount of fruit wasted, and packing the fruit in the location where it is picked also reduces the amount of fruit damaged in the process of transportation.
When I lived in Moscow, Idaho, I volunteered for a local food bank non-profit called Backyard Harvest. This charity, with its local scope and volunteer power, worked on a much smaller economic scale than commercial food producers. Backyard Harvest collected excess food grown by area residents and redistributed that produce to local citizens in need of food security. I spent many hours in small backyard orchards gleaning fruit off of trees and sorting out the bad produce from that which was perfectly edible. Large food conglomerates wouldn’t even bother going through such lengths to deal with such small quantities of food. But with the power of volunteers, we were able to reduce food waste and provide healthy produce to people as well.
Non-profit organizations such as Backyard Harvest rely on the goodwill of volunteers to stem food waste and combat food insecurity. But lots of opportunity for commercial enterprise exists within the cracks of the current food system as well. Thinking again to the cherry farm I was at when the call to cease picking operations was heralded, my labour contractor Damien hatched up a plan to profit off of the massive waste. If the big fruit packer didn’t want to buy the fruit, then the small operation of Damien and his harvest crew would become economically appealing. Damien would offer the farm a modest price to take a few hundred kilograms off their hands (after all, getting some money for the fruit would be better than getting no money at all) and have his harvest crew hand-sort the good and bad cherries in the field. We would have driven the cherries from the Australian countryside into the bustling market of Sydney, and sold cherries at Bondi Beach over New Years. This hypothetical enterprise would have been a self-contained business operation, where we would have picked, packed, transported, and sold the cherries ourselves. All operations would have been handled locally and on a small scale by a few workers with the will and willpower to make something viable off of something wasteful. (As an aside, this business idea of Damien’s was never attempted).
If agricultural business ventures aren’t too large, then they can afford to sort through things at smaller scales. As a result, less food is bound to get wasted. This sounds like a good idea to me.
Learn more about the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s findings on food waste here.
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.
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.