…aaaand I’m back! Sorry for the delay – as it turns out, picking apples is a little more tiring than I thought, and I lacked the spunk to walk an hour into town and use the internet all the time! So here’s an update to fill you all in on the last two months:
From the end of February until the beginning of May I was living and working in Motueka, a tiny town at the north of the South Island. While the local residents may think differently, Motueka is basically a rural Midwestern town that just happens to be located in New Zealand – its residents are a strange-but-wonderful combination of local farmers, hippie adherents, and international travelers brought together by a serendipitous combination of tourism and good weather. The Nelson/Tasman region is the sunniest in New Zealand, and agriculture (first tobacco, then apples, kiwis, pears, and grapes) flourished in the area from its earliest years. The town also happens to be the last major stop before Abel Tasman National Park, so there’s a nearly constant stream of backpackers and international travellers coming through. Between the two, Mot enjoys a lively economy despite its small town atmosphere and tiny permanent population. Of all the places to get stuck for a couple of months, it wasn’t the worst.
While I lived there, I spent my time working as an apple (and pear) picker for a local orchard and living in the orchard ‘accommodation’ with four other backpackers/pickers. I say ‘accommodation’ because our house was actually little more than a large converted shed, set in the middle of kiwi fields and apple orchards a mere 45-minute walk from town. While it wasn’t the swankiest of dwellings, the actually living space was more than adequate – we had two showers, two bathrooms, six bedrooms, two living rooms, and a patio! – and we never lacked for appliances (inside the house we had five televisions, two refrigerators, two ovens, six electric heaters, two washing machines, a ping pong table, three clothes lines and two bicycles!). Never mind that only one of every appliance actually worked – it only added to the charm. Plus, if we got bored, we could always explore the attached shed, which housed an alarming amount of 1980s porn magazines and discarded bits of clothing from years of transient orchard workers. We even had a friendly pet fantail who lived in our rafters and came to visit us every day! Oh, Motueka magic!
My housemates (or as I came to call them, my fraternity brothers) were four boys from across Europe ranging in age from 18 to 29. While we all shared a backpacking lifestyle, you couldn’t have found a more varied group of people – JeanFrancois (Jeff), the oldest member of our group, was a 29-year-old French social worker and new age hippie who loved to play his purple sparkly guitar (‘Gypsy Rose’) and could rarely be found without a headscarf around his head and a cigarette in his hand. In contrast, Maxime (Max) was an 18-year-old budding hippie backpacker who still ha d a girlfriend back home in Belgium but left high school to hitchhike through New Zealand instead. Tobias (Tobi), a 22-year-old architecture student from Germany, and Benedict (Benni), a 21-year-old German physiotherapy student, rounded out our little household and helped fill the air with German reggae, techno, and other variations of smoked substances.
While it might have been a weird combination, somehow we formed a tight family bond over the next several weeks. Maybe it was the first two full days we spent together, when we did nothing but laugh and play raucous card games while it poured down rain outside. Or maybe it was just the fact that we spent every waking moment together for nearly two months, slaving under the sun during the day and watching Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad at night. Whatever it was, I gained a new appreciation for frat house living – from the centerfold named Natasha who graced our living room wall, to the piles of dirty dishes and laundry and the chain smoking and fart jokes and discussions of bowel movements that graced our everyday lives. It might sound crass (it truly was a male household!), but there was a lot of kindness and laughter and happiness as well. Plus, all four of them cooked incredible nightly meals, while I cowered in a corner and looked like a fool with my inability to cook anything but burnt toast. At least now I know I need a European man to marry (or at least some serious cooking lessons)!
Our daily life revolved around picking apples in one several orchards owned by the Horrible family (more on that later). Every morning, the five of us walked ten minutes up the road to the packhouse, where we revved up one of several vintage 1950s Massey Ferguson tractors to drive to work. (While most orchards employ pickers and tractor drivers separately – those who pick, and those who shift the apple bins as the pickers move along each row – our employer was somewhat of an eccentricity in his insistence that we utilize his beloved fleet to its fullest advantage.) Once we’d grabbed our picking bags and ladders, it was off to one of the surrounding fields to pick apples for 8 hours!
Apple picking is a pretty simple job, at heart: all you have to do is take the apples off the trees and put them in a big wooden bin on the back of a tractor without bruising them. At my orchard, each picker was assigned one row of trees. Your job was drive your tractor a few meters into the row, unload your accessories, and pick the trees behind you, moving your tractor forward every few minutes as you finished each section. Every apple goes into the bag you wear around your stomach and torso (kind of like a backwards backpack); once it’s full, it’s emptied by detaching a flap at the bottom of the bag to create a long fabric chute into the bin. Repeat this all day to fill four wooden bins, and you’re officially a picker!
It sounds simple, but working as a picker is in fact both mentally and physically exhausting. In mature orchards the trees can be 20-30 feet tall, which means that every picker has to carry a heavy metal ladder with them to reach the top of each tree. Repeat this several times a day, and your arms and back are aching just from the weight of carrying and moving a solid steel object every few feet. You’re also carrying a 20kg bag full of apples on your front, which puts an incredible amount of strain on your feet, legs, back, and shoulders. In my orchard, pickers were required to fill four 450kg bins per day, minimum – at 22 bags per bin, that means you carry nearly two tons of apple per day!
Fruit picking in general is affected by the weather, and apples are no different – often, we had to wait several days for a certain variety of apple to mature before we could pick it. (Plus, climbing up medal ladders in the rain isn’t exactly safe for one’s health!) Once we actually started picking, we also had to do several passes through the same block of trees in order to take down all of the fruit. Each variety required first a ‘color pick’, in which we could only take the brightest/most colorful fruit, followed by either a second color pick or a final ‘strip pick’ (in which we stripped the trees of all their remaining apples, regardless of color or size). During the term of my employment we picked several varieties of apple, all of which required at least two passes. We began picking Royal Gala apples, which mature the earliest and are also one of the more resilient fruits in terms of bruising. From there we moved on to Fuji apples, then Braeburns (the largest and most resilient variety), and finished with Pink Ladies (the frustrating, delicate apple I have ever touched). We even spent a full two weeks picking Taylor’s Gold pears, a whole new torture of its own since they’re significantly heavier than apples and the fruit is ruined if you break off the stem!
While there’s a particular technique to picking apples off a tree (lift, don’t pull!), every picker has their own special rhythm for completing a row. Some pickers finish the bottoms of their trees and then tackle all of the tops at once, while others pick in a wave pattern (one bottom, one top, one bottom). It’s a combination of mental and physical gymnastics – what’s the most efficient way to fill a bin, and how fast can you go without bruising the delicate fruit? Is it best to finish the bottoms of the trees (the easiest, most accessible, and fastest part) and then be faced with the prospect of moving a ladder, climbing, and finishing the tops all at once? If you wait to finish the tops, will you be slower if you have to carry a full picking bag up and down a ladder several times? Or will you be faster overall if you finish each tree before moving on to the next one? Ultimately, it’s up to the individual – after all, it’s your paycheck!
Of course, one’s motivation wasn’t always internal – often it simply came down to mentally pitting yourself against your coworkers, racing to see who would finish first or complete the most bins in one day. In addition to my housemates approximately ten other pickers came to work on a regular basis, some who were new to the job and many of whom had been picking apples for decades. Pacific Islanders, single moms, unemployed businessmen, young transients – all of them found a place on the picking line. (There was even one picker named Billy, who looked exactly like Billy from Stardust!) Pickers like Billy could often pick 8, 9, or 10 bins in a day, but even picking 5 or 6 meant a paycheck of close to NZ$1000 at the end of the week. Not such a bad reimbursement for 6 days of work!
Often, the motivation to work came not from my coworkers but from our gang foreman, Steve. While the Horribles (our bosses Sue and Richard) spent their days supervising the pack house, counting their money, and leaving us aggressive notes about cleaning the precious shack we called home, Steve was the true face of management in our eyes. He spent all day in the field, arranged our schedules, calmed and cajoled the H’s when they were unreasonable (which was more often than not), and spent almost every lunch break chatting with his workers. If not for Steve, I know that we would have left far earlier than the end of the season, and in much worse financial and emotional states…
Or, you could just watch this ridiculous video of me picking Pink Ladies (perfectly narrated by Jeff) instead:
Despite Steve’s management and our happy household, by the end of April it was clear that our time at the orchard was coming to an end. Benni and Tobi had left more than a month before, Jeff and I had celebrated our 29th and 23rd birthdays, and the last of the Pink Ladies were all that stood between us and the freedom to travel and spend our hard-earned money. We stayed just long enough to collect our bin bonus ($1 for every bin we’d picked that season, woohoo!) and to meet the new residents of our house – the Japanese National Women’s Rugby Team, who’d come to New Zealand to train for the 2016 Olympics and were working in the packing shed in the meantime! (The Horribles may be terrible bosses, but you can’t say they don’t have good connections!) It may have been a crazy one, but it was an appropriate end to an appropriately outrageous few months :)