Working on an Orchard – Part One
An inside look on what it’s like to work as a seasonal agricultural worker.
A year ago I was desperate for seasonal work when a friend suggested I fly back to the East Coast to come pick apples with him. I didn’t want to leave Northwestern U.S. at the time so I said maybe next year. Every year he leaves his life in the city and spends the fall at Mack’s Apples. And every year he returns glowing so when I found myself back in New England working tirelessly to pay off previous debts I’d incurred and let’s face it, getting horribly out of shape I thought why not? I wasn’t ready for another big adventure far from my home base in Mass but New Hampshire would provide me with lots of new territory to explore while being close enough to visit my friends, but mostly my cat who’s been fighting off an infection for several months now. My mom has been graciously taking care of her in my absence and I have time off on the weekends to go check up on her.
Moving on in.
Today marks the 6th day I’ve been here. Mack’s Apples is located in Londonderry, NH. It’s a typical suburban town about halfway in between Nashua and Manchester. Oh and about a third of it is taken up by an orchard. Mack’s generously provides housing for it’s seasonal employees which is something migrant workers find hard to come by. Mike, the manager suggested I come up for the summer season to learn how to pick before we head into the busy fall season.
When I first arrived no one was home. It took me a minute to find the bunkhouse which is hidden behind another house with a shared driveway. There’s so many doors that I had to call my friend and ask how to get to the kitchen lest I accidentally open the door to the owner’s apartment in the west wing. Once I had put my groceries away it was time to pick a spot to call my own.
The bunkhouse is a history of its workers. Bits and pieces of travelers and agricultural workers litter the corners. A photo here a stack of magazines covered in dust there. Painting and unique items that qualify as furniture adorn the shelves and walls. And of course what we refer to as the murder bathroom is covered in cliche phrases and tags. With only four of us living here we don’t have to use that one as much. There’s so much left behind here that an entire storage room has transitioned into a free stuff room.
The first floor consists of a kitchen with several fridges and anything you could ever need, including mismatched tupperware that I will be conquering at some point this weekend. Next to the kitchen there’s a common room with lots of comfy places to sit and not one but two out of tune pianos. I’m told that I’ll be waking up to the sounds of those keys being played soon. I’m currently sitting in the backyard that the kitchen opens up to where most of us enjoy our meals on one of the outside tables. There’s a fire pit around here somewhere which I can’t wait to use once the mosquitoes are gone. Londonderry happens to have a lot of ponds which are pretty to look at but not are awesome breeding grounds for our blood sucking friends. Today we cleared a path to what looks like a shed but is actually a sauna. My body will appreciate that later in the season.
Upstairs on the second floor there are more books than I could I read in a year. The library was candy for my eyes and there’s a large flat screen TV for lazy nights with two full length sofas in rows behind it. It’s a mini movie theater for lazy nights as long as no one is using the ping pong table beside it. There are two doors off the living room. One is a women’s only bunk area and one is a bedroom designated for a cook that comes later in the season. Someone had already snagged the cook’s room temporarily. The women’s only room is light and airy with off white painted walls but ultimately I decided to make my little space upstairs as there’s a grate in the middle of the floor directly above the common room in the women’s only sleep space. You can hear everything downstairs which does not provide a good wake up call.
The third floor is nothing but sleep space. There are 2 rows of beds but since I was only the second person to settle there I got first dibs on any furniture. That and I got to snag a sweet corner space with lots of room and a large window. After dragging the remaining available bureau over to the corner I spent a good hour rearranging furniture and deciding between two spots. A warped shelf that was leaning forward was making me feel claustrophobic so I replaced it with a small desk and voila. My new bedroom. I hung my green Cambodian Sarong in the window to add some color to the wood walls and later in the week put some sheets up around my bed that were found in the free room for privacy. There were many mattresses to choose from and I was quite happy to test them all out.
A couple of hours later the rest of the current residents arrived home for the evening and it being Sunday I got to bond with my housemates in the best way. By screaming “No” repeatedly at the TV on episode 6 Season 7 of Game of Thrones. Work starts at 8 so I hit the hay shortly after the episode that almost made me quit GOT.
Out in the field.
I woke up the next day and confirmed that the creatures running around in the attic above me were in fact squirrels. Turns out the owner is a big bird feeder. The squirrels are great at stealing the bird’s food and thus multiply every year.
A couple in a van showed up around 7am and there’s now 6 of us working the pre-harvest season. And three dogs. Gotta count the dogs. I showed up for my first day of work and spent the first thirty minutes watching a safety video on pesticides cause government.
Very little of what is picked goes to wholesale. Most of the harvest goes directly to the store market. It’s a charming little tourist trap with fields of “you pick” apples for families to visit. There’s an ice cream stand that’s open until 9pm every night. Ice cream has never really been a weakness for me but that’s before I spent 9 hours working in the heat 6 days a week. I avoid that side of the market now.
My first day I learned how to pick peaches. And my second, third, and fourth. When I asked one of my housemates how hard it was he described it as more “tumultuous”. That word sums up peach work quite well. I was provided with a long sleeve shirt to wear before I hit the field because the fuzz from the peaches will coat everything. Before you know it you’ll have a peach fuzz rash. The peach fuzz rash is real. You do not want it. Peach picking doesn’t take much strength but the way we do it here we park the truck about five trees ahead of where we start. The truck bed is filled with boxes that are filled and when we catch up to it we drive it forward again. Well someone else does. It’s a stick shift that “I don’t want to learn stick on”. Only a couple people here can manage to get that vehicle in gear and I’m not one of them. It’s a lot of walking and a lot of learning how to juggle as many peaches as possible in your arms. One of my co-workers pointed out how it’s helping her correct her posture. By the end of day 4 I was a lot more knowledgeable about peaches. I’ve learned where to locate the largest and ripest of them quickly, which varieties grow the most, and how to “trim” the trees. Most of all you have to get the hang of plucking them without causing branch damage, bruising them, or causing the stem to rip the skin at the top. Of course the largest and ripest peaches are most susceptible to all of the above.
On day 5 I was excited but anxious to finally get out with the apple crew. Our crew leader has been working this orchard for a long time and explained the wash (coloring) we were going for on the Paula Reds rows we were working that day. I was ecstatic to get to wear a tank top for the sunny day. Not so excited that I hadn’t put sunscreen on my shoulders which are now burnt. Apples are a whole different ball game. There’s a lot less walking involved and a whole lot more weight lifting. And then there’s the ladder work. I’d been dreading the ladder work since before I even got here. I’m not necessarily scared of heights but I’m really f’n scared of falling. Turns out the hardest part for me wouldn’t be getting up the ladder but the maneuvering of it. We set out to each tree with a ½ bushel container strapped to our chest like suspenders. They can be a huge pain to remove and put back on all the time so it took me half a day to get the hang of carrying the ladder by my side with a huge barrel strapped to my chest. And then there’s the vines and ground hog holes littering the ground. More than one person has fallen off a ladder over the years because they forgot to check there wasn’t one where they put the ladder pole. The trees we worked on that first day are in need of a trim so it took me a lot more time to learn where to put the ladder than than it did to actually obtain the apples at the top. And of course there’s that tiny matter of having 30lbs of apples strapped to your chest. I was amazed that I didn’t start to feel the pain until 3pm, 7 hours into my shift. All in all at the end of the day I suck at picking apples. But I suck less than I did that morning.