Friday, March 11, 2016

Peaches and Pitfalls

When it comes to peaches, I know precious little. Except that I enjoy them in every imaginable form. Sliced in a lunchbox, blended in a smoothie, even grilled on the barbeque. For the record, I also enjoy those gummy peach rings from the bulk bin at the Co-op, although I’m fairly certain they contain no semblance of an actual peach.

As big a peach lover as I am, I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle a day of peach picking. My heart raced as I turned down a dusty road off of highway 70, past a blue sign for Johl Orchards. As I park my station wagon, Kulwant greets me. “Where’s your peach bag?” is the first thing out of his mouth. “Umm,” I mutter. “Guess I left it in my other pants,” I reply. “Oh well, we’ll find you one to use,” he says, “come on, I’ll show you around.”

Kulwant Johl owns the 2000 acres of peach trees we are currently surrounded by. He has graciously agreed to let me—a graduate student at UC Davis, come to see what the peach harvest is like. Growing up in a wealthy suburb I never thought much about where the food we eat comes from. After starting at UCD, I became involved with a student run clinic in the rural community of Knight’s Landing. Many of our patients are farmworkers and I have seen the health disparities that exist in this population walk through our clinic doors every Sunday. I want to understand the work that our patients do and the challenges they face. The only way to truly know how labor-intensive farmwork is, is to do it myself. My quest has lead me here- to Kulwant and his orchard.

Kulwant and I walk between the trees and I am quickly immersed in a world unlike any I have ever experienced. The rows of trees seem endless. The branches are laden with fruit, the boughs creaking under the weight. I stumble as we walk, stepping on fallen peaches in various states of decay, disrupting a swarm of flies with each step.

In the distance I hear people talking, some in Spanish, some in what I later learn is Punjabi and some in English. I’m told that most of the people here have been picking since before dawn.

Kulwant is a kind man and as I quickly learn an extremely patient one. He agreed to let me work for a day in his orchard to find out what its like to pick peaches. When we arranged our meeting over the phone I swear I heard him mutter something about me being ‘totally crazy.’ But he plays along with my umpteen questions and diligently answers them. “How much land does he have?” “What kind of peaches are these?” “How long is the peach season?” “How much does he pay his workers?” and more importantly “how much is he planning on paying me?”

In the midst of my questioning we stop at the end of a row of trees bordering a dusty access road. “I’ll have someone bring a ladder,” he says. And indeed moments later Kulwant’s brother presents me with a ladder and my very own peach-picking bag. I feel so official. At this moment I expect a lesson on the finer points of peach picking—this being my first visit to an orchard. But I turn around to see Kulwant getting in his pick-up. I call out to him, wondering if there is any vital piece of information he neglected to tell me. “I’d prefer it if you didn’t fall off the ladder,” he said, and in a cloud of dust, he drives off.

I should mention that I did ask for the full peach picking experience—just like a regular worker hired for the season would have. No special treatment. I need to understand how hard this work is and as I soon discover—how dangerous.

I sling the peach bag over my shoulder. I’m not exactly sure how its supposed to fit, but this should work for now. Next I size up the ladder. It’s a peculiar contraption, not like the normal A-frame ones I’ve seen at the hardware store. The rungs become progressively narrower the farther up the ladder, and the other side is just a pole dug into the dirt. It doesn’t look very user friendly to me.

I pick with one hand and hold on for dear life to the ladder with the other. I’m just about to climb down when a girl—about my age walks up to my crate and starts taking peaches out and chucking them on the ground. “Hey,” I yell, shuffling down the ladder, “what are you doing, I just picked those,” I said, trying not to sound annoyed. “Did you just get here?” she asks, “because you know you’re not going to make very much money today,” she chides. I explain to her about my project and my quest to understand peach picking. She nods intently, and expresses her shock that I am doing this voluntarily. “I’m a grader,” she tells me. And goes on to explain that any peaches that are too small or too bruised can’t go into the crate—its her job to throw them out. She shows me a yellow plastic ring, “60 1/3 mm” is stamped on its edge—apparently this size or larger is the mark of an ideal peach.

“I’m Millie*,” she says extending her hand to shake mine. “Fiona,” I reply. Millie and I are fast friends. She tells me about her work in the orchard, her dreams of becoming a nurse and points out various family members working nearby. I’m grateful for the small respite and chug half my water bottle. “Picking is hard work,” Millie tells me. “No kidding,” I say, venturing up the ladder again, determine not to have more peaches thrown out. Millie runs off to check on other crates.

My head is immersed in the canopy of the tree. Its peaceful 15 feet off the ground, surrounded by golden peaches and bright green leaves. I lean on the rungs of the ladder and pluck a peach hanging next to my head. I bite into its flesh, letting the juice run down my chin. I can hear the various conversations from the people around me. A car radio plays gentle Spanish music, the two men next to me are talking about lunch and somewhere in the distance I hear someone yell, “via Obama.”

Soon I am faced with another dilemma of peach picking. I have to decide if getting the highest fruit is worth risking a head injury. My livelihood doesn’t depend on how many peaches I pick. As a student at UC Davis, I know I will go home to the pile of books and homework on my desk. I am not picking at a frenetic pace, like so many around me are.  Millie, her family, the man who moved my ladder, even Kulwant—their lives all depend on how many peaches get picked and how fast. And frankly, I’m getting in the way.

Each full crate pays $17. Kulwant and I estimate that a crate loaded to the brim with peaches probably weighs over 1,000 pounds. I’m told the record for the most peaches picked in a day is 32 crates, which equals 32,000 pounds of peaches, earning the two pickers a take home pay of $272 each. Right now I would say I’m setting a record in the opposite direction, my crate is about 1/3 full. I do a rough calculation in my head. After four hours of work I have earned approximately $6.50.

The day wears on and the late afternoon sun hangs low in the sky. I’m covered in dust and bleeding scratches from the unforgiving branches. The tiny hairs from the peach skin burn my sweaty gloveless hands. I empty the last load of peaches I can muster into the crate. Millie comes along to check my work as I lean against the ladder. “Not bad,” she says with a smile. I decide that on the high note of “not bad” I should pack it in. People are waiting to re-pick my tree, since there are still quite a large number of peaches on it. I hug Millie goodbye and she slips the yellow 60 1/3 mm grading ring onto my wrist. “To remember me by,” she says. I let the man who moved my ladder have my crate. I sling the peach bag over one shoulder and walk toward the trucks loading fruit for the cannery.

I quickly find Kulwant who greets me with a chuckle. “How was it?” he asks. “Memorable,” I reply shoving the peach bag into his hands. It was by far the hardest days work I have ever done in my life. He tells me how much respect he has for the people that do this kind of work. And after today I whole-heartedly share his sentiment. “So how much did you pick?” Kulwant wants to know. I laugh. “About half a crate,” I reply. “I doubt I could do much better,” he says. 

Kulwant lets me take a huge bag of peaches home as payment for my hard days work. Between the ladder I might have broken and how few peaches I picked, I probably owe him money.  As I climb into my car sticky and dirty, I know that this day has forever changed me.

A few days after my peach picking adventure, I find myself in the produce department of a fancy Davis grocery store. I stop in front of a huge display of neatly arranged peaches. Rolling one over in my hand, I wonder about the person who picked it. What is their life like? What are their hopes and dreams? How high up a ladder did they have to climb?  I glance down at the yellow 60 1/3 ring still around my wrist and I think of Millie. She would be so thrilled if all of the peaches I picked were as big as the ones on display here.  I learned many things while picking peaches. But among the most valuable, I count my understanding of the difficulties of harvesting peaches and a deep appreciation for those who work long hours and risk injury for $17.

* Names have been changed

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