Canadian Cherry Picking

We used to go out to Michigan every Summer. I found it boring and painful which I supposed spoiled it for the rest of the family, though how many times is deep fried Chicken from Frankenmuth exciting (for the record the first Girlfriend who let me get to Second Base was from Frankenmuth and that was plenty exciting!)?

We’d drive through Canada, which despite its quirks (Well Done Hamburgers? Really?) is an all together better country than we are.

Canada is a better country than we are.

Thank you. At least they have better Beer which covers a lot, including Poutine. One of the features of our annual migration, at least for the other members of my family, was driving through the Cherry Orchards at Harvest Time.

Me? I hate Cherries. Not allergic, just don’t like them.

But some people do and we’d stop at every road side stand and pick up another gallon or two. Unfortunately what was not instantly consumed ended up poisoning every dish for the next month.

The Scramble to Pluck 24 Billion Cherries in Eight Weeks
By Brooke Jarvis, The New Yor5k Times
Aug. 12, 2020

Consider the cherry. Consider this cherry, actually, this one here, hanging off the tree at the very end of a long, deep green row. Look at how its red and gold skin shines in the bright sun. It’s a famous hybrid variety, a Rainier, which means it has sweet yellow flesh and that you’ll have to pay a premium price to eat it. If you do, it will be delicious, the very taste of summer. But first it will have to get to you.

So far, this cherry has been mostly lucky. No disease has come for its tree, though there’s a bad one, little-cherry disease, stalking nearby orchards. No frost kept its springtime blossoms from giving way to fruit. No excessive rain has fallen in the short time since it ripened.

That could have been a disaster, because water likes to pool in the little divot by the stem. There it seeps into the flesh, making the cherry swell. Too much, and the cherry will burst through its own skin, causing splits; whole harvests can be lost this way. So dangerous is poorly timed water that cherry growers rely on fans, wind machines and even low-flying helicopters to dry ripe fruit before it is lost. Yet wind presents its own peril: It can knock cherries against one another or into branches, bruising them so that they’re rejected on the packing line, where fruit is sorted for size and quality with high-tech optical scanners. Rainiers, because of their color, are particularly prone to showing their past with telltale “wind marks,” tiny incursions of brownness on that golden skin. This cherry has just a few.

But it’s not to market yet. The window in which a sweet cherry can be picked for sale is excruciatingly narrow. Cherries don’t continue to ripen once they’re off the tree, the way a peach does, and once picked they don’t store for very long, even when refrigerated. If they’re too ripe, they won’t make it to the packing house, the truck or the airplane, the grocery-store display, your summery dessert. The sugar content must be Goldilocksian — neither too high nor too low. Wait even a couple of days too many, and it may be too late.

Paige Hake, the second generation of her family to farm this orchard, considered the cherry. Then she considered its neighbors, with their own wind marks, in the lambent heat of a June afternoon. She looked down the long green row of trees, lined with its strip of white plastic fabric, meant to reflect sunlight onto the undersides of the cherries, helping them color evenly. She consulted with her father, Orlin Knutson, who has been growing fruit on this stretch of dry sagebrush steppe near Mattawa, Wash., for 41 years, the last 31 of them organically. There was a refrigerated truck waiting by the gate, with a growing stack of full bins next to it. There was rain in the forecast, as well as more heat, and sugar levels in the cherries were rising as they spoke. They wanted to get these cherries harvested today; they were far enough along that it was probably now or never, a whole year of investment and work leading to this one afternoon. But it was getting late, and there were a lot of other cherries that needed to be picked, and today the crew of people available to pick them was smaller than they would have liked. She turned to me and pointed to the wind-marked cherry, still unsure whether it would be worth the cost of trying to get it to market. “Would you buy that at Whole Foods?” she asked.

The yellow cherry was one of a great many across the orchards of Washington State that were just beginning to ripen. Karen Lewis, who works with growers as a tree-fruit specialist for the agricultural extension service of Washington State University, has tried to calculate exactly how many individual cherries need to be picked during a whirlwind season that Jon DeVaney, the president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, calls “eight weeks of craziness.” Multiplying all the millions of boxes by the number of cherries they can hold, Lewis determined that as many as 24 billion individual cherries must be plucked, separately, from their trees and placed carefully into bags and buckets and bins, each and every one of them by human hands.

Lewis thinks that people who aren’t used to thinking much about the source of their food, or who assume that the food system is as mechanized and smoothly calibrated as a factory, spitting out produce like so many sticks of gum, ought to spend some time contemplating that figure and what it means. “I’m here to tell you that people do not think we harvest everything by hand,” she says. But hands, belonging to highly skilled workers, are needed for every last cherry. During the harvest, many thousands of people are out picking by dawn, nearly every day, their fingers flying as they watch out for rattlesnakes under dark trees. (Compounding the labor crunch, this is also the time when workers in the region must hand-thin more than 100 million apple trees, so that the remaining fruit can grow larger.) Later in the season, many of the same hands will pick and place each peach and plum and apricot, every single apple — five and a half billion pounds, just of apples, just in Washington, just last year. “I think those numbers are staggering,” Lewis said.

The cherry industry has done everything it can to squeeze every possible bit of extra time into the season. Growers plant at a range of different elevations: Every 100 feet above sea level, one orchard manager says, buys you an extra day until maturity. And they choose different varietals that ripen at slightly different speeds — most red cherries are marketed to the public simply as “dark sweets” but are actually a genetically distinct array, whose different sizes and tastes and unique horticultural personalities are intimately known by growers and pickers. If everything bloomed and matured all at once, Lewis said, there’s no way there would be enough bees, enough trucks, enough bins, to make the scale of the current cherry harvest possible. Most of all, there wouldn’t be enough people. There already aren’t.

Some people take their fruit very seriously.

For years, the tree-fruit industry in Washington — like the salad industry in California, the blueberry industry in New Jersey, the tomato industry in Florida and countless other sources of the things that we eat — has been struggling to find the workers it needs to keep producing food. Across the country, the number of farmworkers is dwindling. Current workers, who are often immigrants without legal permission to work in the industries that are reliant on them, are getting older; those who are able to are leaving an industry that’s poorly paid and physically damaging and often exploitative; and crackdowns at the border mean that there are fewer new arrivals to take their place. To cope, some growers have turned to a ballooning visa-based “guest worker” program, which comes with its own significant problems, while many others have simply buckled under debt and rising costs, going under or selling their orchards to ever-bigger companies. “Everyone’s squeezed pretty much to the limit,” Knutson said, surveying the dark leaves, the shining fruit, the clear blue sky. “It’s kind of an ugly time.”

Such was the state of things before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, bringing with it a host of new troubles. When I called Lewis early in this year’s cherry harvest, she had just sent out a newsletter that, along with the latest updates on cherry disease and apple varieties, included information on suicide prevention. Piled on top of everything else, she said, “this is enough to take people to their knees.”

In March, when the United States began to lock down to slow the spread of the new virus, some workers noticed a change in how the government talked about them. As leaders planned for closures, it became clear that many of the lowest-paid and least-respected jobs in America were, in fact, the most important: the ones that could not be paused or interrupted or bypassed if society was to keep functioning. You could not, as Knutson put it, simply close the door to a farm for a month and then reopen it. People who had regularly been called illegal suddenly found themselves rebranded as essential.

Harvest seasons were underway or rapidly approaching across the country; without enough workers, the nation’s food would not be produced. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it would “temporarily adjust its enforcement posture,” narrowing its focus to people involved in criminal activity rather than arresting anyone who was undocumented. In California, where labor-intensive fruit-and-vegetable crops account for about 85 percent of the state’s crop sales, farmers handed out letters that workers who feared attracting the attention of law enforcement by going to work during lockdowns could carry with them: not papers by the usual definition, but a paper to show that they were, informally, and just for now, legitimate by virtue of being indispensable.

So it’s kind of a systemic problem where Neo Liberal Apex Capitalism undervalues its Labor Inputs (again) and “Just In Time” supply chains fail.

It’s very instructive if you don’t mind reading about Cherries.