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Inside The Life Of An Apple Picker

Oct 23, 2015
Originally published on November 9, 2015 7:08 pm

It's fall. Time to pick apples. For some of us, that's casual recreation, a leisurely stroll through picturesque orchards.

For tens of thousands of people, though, it's a paycheck. They drive hundreds of miles for the apple harvest in central Washington, western Michigan, the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York, and Adams County, Pa.

"The truth is, every apple that you see in the supermarket is picked by hand," says Philip Baugher, who runs a fruit tree nursery in Adams County.

And a commercial apple harvest is no leisurely stroll. It's more like a SWAT team assault.

Teams of men, and a few women, trot into the orchards with ladders in hand, then clamber up those ladders and lean into the trees. Their hands move as quickly as a boxer's, grabbing apples and dropping them into bags strapped to their waists. Most work quietly, focused on the task. A few chatter in Spanish.

"The most important technique is, you have to learn how to use your hands," says Jose Martinez, one of the workers. "You should be able to look at a group of apples and decide, OK, I can grab three of these per hand, or two of these. Never just one, though."

When the bags are full, each worker walks or runs to a nearby wagon and empties it into a huge bin, big enough to hold almost a thousand pounds of apples. That's his container to fill; he gets paid by the box.

"If you are an experienced picker and you're in good physical condition — because it is hard to do — you should not pick less than 12 boxes in a day," says Martinez.

If you do the math, that's six tons of apples.

Each of these 23-bushel bins holds nearly 1,000 pounds of apples. Jose Martinez can pick 15 or 16 of these big bins each day: 15,000 pounds of apples.
Dan Charles / NPR

The work takes strength, obviously, as well as skill that comes from experience. "My very first day, I only picked three boxes. On my second day, I picked five boxes. For the rest of that season, I stayed between eight and 10, no more than that," Martinez recalls.

Now, though, he's a star. He can pick 15 or 16 of these big bins each day: 15,000 pounds of apples.

If you can pick that fast, you can make pretty good money, as farm wages go: About $250 in a day.

And that's why, for the past 13 years, Martinez has been coming to Adams County, Pa.

It's a beautiful place with winding country roads and hillsides covered with orchards.

"There's probably a hundred farm families in Adams County that grow apples," says Philip Baugher, from the Adams County Nursery. "And they generally get along really well together, and they help each other out."

But when harvest time comes, they need a lot more help. Workers come to this area by the thousands. Nationwide, an estimated 70,000 workers pick apples every fall. Many are single men who live in "camps" right on the farms. Those rooms are basic, and cramped.

Jose Martinez in the Adams County, Pa., orchard where he's working this year. He's been coming to the county for the apple harvest for the past 13 years.
Dan Charles / NPR

Others come as families. Jose Martinez is here with his wife, Matilde Avendano, and their five children. So they've spent extra money to rent a small apartment.

The walls of the apartment are mostly bare. There's not much furniture beyond a kitchen table, some chairs, and mattresses to sleep on. I see one book: the Dr. Seuss story The Sneetches.

They could only bring what they could carry in their car. "You take what's most essential for your travels, and everything else gets left behind," Martinez says. A few months ago, they were harvesting blueberries in Michigan. At the end of October, they'll move to Florida for the strawberries, and then more blueberries.

The work itself is satisfying, they say. They enjoy it. The orchard is "a free environment," says Martinez. "You can express yourself, you can say anything you want."

And unlike most Americans, who sometimes complain that they don't know where their food comes from, these workers know exactly where their fruit, at least, comes from.

They laugh as they talk about eating apples "all day long" during apple season, and in Florida, eating strawberries and blueberries until they are sick of them. By next fall, they'll be ready to eat apples again.

Martinez carries his toddler son, Richard, from the Head Start school building. The family spends about half the year in Florida, where there's work through the winter. That's the closest approximation of "home." The rest of the year, the children move from one school or preschool to another.
Dan Charles / NPR

But the life, the moving from place to place, is not easy, especially for the children. Martinez and Avendano's oldest child is 9 years old. The youngest just turned 1.

"My older kids, they keep asking when we're going back to Florida," says Martinez. "If it was up to them, we'd go to Florida tomorrow."

They spend about half the year in Florida, where there's work to be found through the winter. That's the closest approximation of "home." The rest of the year, the children move from one school or preschool to another.

In places where there are a lot of migrant farm workers, including Adams County, the federal government pays for special Head Start programs for the youngest children. That school is one place where migrant families gather. It's a stable point in a community that's otherwise transient.

"I would like to settle down a little bit, and find a stable place," Martinez says. "It's hard when you move from state to state. You risk the safety of your family, you risk your own safety. That's why it's hard. Because this is where you make your money to save up."

The money is much better here in the north, he says, than in Florida.

This tension between wanting stability and the opportunity to earn more money for a couple of months is especially intense for this family. Their 3-year-old daughter, Betsy, has leukemia. She needs regular medical treatment.

Matilde Avendano, with her daughter Betsy. Betsy is currently being treated for leukemia.
Dan Charles / NPR

The family came to Adams County early this year so that they could spend more time in one place, close to a good hospital. But very soon, they'll pack up and move on.

It's their life, Martinez says.

That fruit they pick, he tells me, may end up in the White House, or my house.

You won't know where those apples came from, he says, but 90 percent of them were picked by an immigrant like him.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's fall, a time when apple picking can be a whole lot of fun. For tens of thousands of people, though, it is a paycheck.

PHILIP BAUGHER: The truth is that every apple that you see in the supermarket is picked by hand. There is no way to mechanize apple harvest.

GREENE: That is Philip Baugher. He runs a fruit tree nursery in Adams County, Penn. And this morning, we are beginning a new series about the foods of each season and the workers who harvest them. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: A commercial apple harvest is no leisurely stroll. It's more like a SWAT team assault.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

CHARLES: Men clamber up ladders and lean into the trees. Their hands move as quickly as boxer's, grabbing apples, dropping them into bags strapped to their waists. Almost everybody here is speaking Spanish.

JOSE MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) The most important technique is you got to learn how to use your hands.

CHARLES: This is Jose Martinez.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) You should be able to look at, like, a group of apples and decide, like, OK, I can grab three of these per hand or two of these - never one, though.

CHARLES: When a worker fills his bag, he walks or runs to a nearby wagon and empties it into a huge box big enough to hold almost a thousand pounds of apples. That's container to fill. He gets paid by the box.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) If you're an experienced picker and you're in good physical condition - 'cause it is hard to do - you should not pick less than 12 boxes per day.

CHARLES: That's 6 tons of apples. The work takes strength, obviously, also skill and experience to do it well.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) My very first day, I only picked three boxes. On my second day, I picked five boxes. And for the rest of the season, I stayed between 10 and eight, no more than that.

CHARLES: Now, though, he's a star. He can fill 15 or 16 of these big bins every day. That's 15,000 pounds of apples. If you can pick that fast, you can make pretty good money as farm wages go, $250 in a day. And that is why for 13 years now, Jose Martinez has been coming to Adams County, Penn. It's a beautiful place with winding country roads and hillsides covered with orchards.

BAUGHER: There's probably a hundred farm families in Adams County that grow apples.

CHARLES: Philip Baugher, from the Adams County Nursery, sells young trees to a lot of these families.

BAUGHER: And they generally all get along really well together. And they help each other out.

CHARLES: But when harvest time comes, they need a lot more help. So workers come here by the thousands. Nationwide, about 70,000 workers pick apples every fall. Many are single men living in so-called worker camps right on the farms. Those rooms are basic and cramped. Others come as families. Jose Martinez is here with his wife, Matilde Avendano, and their five children. So they spent extra money to rent a small apartment.

MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MATILDE AVENDANO: (Speaking Spanish).

CHARLES: The walls of their place are mostly bare. There's not much furniture beyond a kitchen table, some chairs, mattresses to sleep on - just one book that I can see, the Dr. Seuss story about "Sneetches On Beaches," because they could only bring what they could carry in their car. A few months ago, they were harvesting blueberries in Michigan. At the end of October, they'll move on to Florida for the strawberries, then more blueberries.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) And you take whatever you can that is most necessary, most essential for your travels. And everything else gets left behind.

CHARLES: The work, they say, is satisfying. They enjoy it.

AVENDANO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) It's a free environment. You can express yourself. You can say anything to want.

CHARLES: And unlike most Americans, they know exactly where their fruit comes from.

AVENDANO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: They eat so many apples all day everyday that by the time they get to Florida, they never buy apples in Florida. And then they get sick of the strawberries and the blueberries. By the time they get here, they're ready to eat apples again.

CHARLES: But this life - the moving from place to place - is not easy, especially for the children. Martinez and Avendano's oldest child is 9. nine. The youngest just turned 1 year old.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) My older kids, they keep asking about when we're going back to Florida. I don't know if they don't like the school system here or the weather or if they miss their friends from down there, since we're there must of the year. But if it was up to them, we should go to Florida tomorrow.

CHARLES: They spend about half the year in Florida. That's the closest thing they have to home. The rest of the year, the children move from one school or preschool to another.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Speaking Spanish).

CHARLES: In places where there are a lot of migrant farm workers, like Adams County, the federal government pays for special Head Start programs for the youngest children. That school is one place where migrant families gather, one stable point in a community that's otherwise transient.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) I would like to settle down a little bit better, find a more stable place. It's hard when you migrate from state to state. You risk the safety of your family. You risk your own safety. That's why it's tough because when you come here, this is where you make most of your money to save up.

CHARLES: That tension between wanting stability but on the other hand the opportunity to earn more money for a couple of months is especially intense for this family right now. Their 3-year-old daughter, Betsy, has leukemia. She needs regular medical treatment. They came to Adams County early this year so they could spend more time in one place close to a good hospital. But very soon, they'll pack up and move on. It's our life, he says. And this is the only time when Martinez mentions the big life choice that brought him here. That fruit we pick, he says, maybe it ends up in the White House or your house. You won't know where those apples came from, he says, but I guarantee you 90 percent of them were picked by an immigrant like me. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.