Work on a cherry farm in British Columbia

Summerland, BC, Canada

Would you stay rather outside of the big cities? Do you want to escape from all the stress, rumble, harassing homeless people, drugged young thugs of the great Canadian cities? Do you want to experience the intense summer feeling of living in the village and the everyday strenuous but refreshing outdoor work? And to earn some nice money in a few weeks?

Nothing prevents you then from continuing to read about our hippie life in the village of Summerland, surrounded by hills, vineyards, and orchards set in the valley of the beautiful Lake Okanagan.

We arrived at the farm in Summerland in mid-April. At the time when nature began to recover from the protracted hard winter, and the highest daily temperatures started to slowly attack the 20-degree limit. The cherry trees adorned with blooming blossoms were glowing, and we got a basic garden cabin right in the middle of the orchard in one of the many cherry tree rows.

 

Tree planting

There were two months left until cherry picking season started, so we concentrated all our energy on the ongoing project - setting up a new large orchard deep in the Meadow Valley on the slopes of Garnet Lake. The plan was to plant there 12,000 trees this season.

Every morning a group of 8 workers jumped into the white Chevrolet van and accompanied by loud rock riffs of the Black Keys music we headed out for a drive climbing deep into the mountain forests.

Right from the start, we got a "very responsible" job, surveying a field at Savannah Rd. We were given 160 ft. long, marked rope, a few thousand of popsicle sticks, and as we moved through the field, we measured the distances. Every 8 feet within the same line we stuck the popsicle in the ground, turned around at the end of the field, measured 16 feet between the two lines and repeated the whole process on the way back to the other end of the field.

The task was simple, but after piercing 12,000 skewers into arid stony soil, our back and knees were pretty aching.

After measuring the distances, an excavator passed through the field and dug holes at the given intervals. Then we put the trees in the pits, shoveled in a few scoops of peat, poured some water, and threw a few shovels of soil on top.

By the end of April, the sun at Savannah Rd. begun to show its strength, and on the hot, dusty plateau we sometimes couldn't bear the midday heat while we were desperately shoveling. At the beginning of May, all of the 12,000 trees were planted correctly, treated, trimmed, and the field cleaned from all stones.

Measuring the distances

Surveying with a rope 

The first batch of freshly planted trees

Thinning of nectarines, peaches, and apples

Those few weeks between the end of tree planting and the beginning of the cherry-picking season were filled with all kinds of extra jobs. One of them was thinning of nectarines, peaches, and apples.

All trees had been properly pruned and kept to a comfortable size. As opposed to working on the apple orchard in New Zealand, we did not have to crawl through the bushy crowns of tall trees and thus thinning was very enjoyable.

 

Grass cutting and branches tying

While after a week of cutting grass with a hand-held mower, most of my fingers on both hands went numb, I really enjoyed the easy job of tying branches.  We moved the heavy branches loaded with fruit out of the way and attached them closer to the trunk to create more space for the passing tractor. These were the last jobs we got before the picking season started.

For all pre-season jobs, i.e., planting trees, thinning, cutting grass and tying branches, I received a basic wage of 12 CAD per hour (gross, plus holiday pay). It wasn't any fantastic pay, but I got clean CAD 900 every two weeks. The accommodation itself was free of charge, and we paid a ridiculously low utility bill fee of 20 CAD per person per month.

Magda enjoying the views

Peach thinning

Breathtaking view from the peach orchard

Another of the beautiful views from the nectarine orchard

On a break with "Licker"

Cut grass with the Giant Head in the background

The Licker wants to throw a stick again

Apple thinning

Cherry picking

The first cherry picking phase began on June 22. We (pickers) picked for three days in a row, novices learned the picking technique and the packers tested inside the packing house whether all the machines were running as they should. After the initial testing phase, we waited for another 5 days, until the earliest variety riped, and the season went live. In front of us, there were 41 consecutive days of work without a break. During the season we picked the varieties in the order as they matured. Even though the Carcajou farm is a smaller family business, there was more than enough work. We picked fruits in orchards directly owned by the Carlson company and in orchards owned by other owners who rented the pickers through the Carlson company.

 

We picked different varieties, varying in color, taste, and shape (Sweetheart, Santina, Skeena, Lapin, Staccato, Symphony, Sentennial). We picked cherries without a ladder in orchards with young trees, and we picked high up in the crowns of old, tall cherry trees. Most of the time, I used a 6-foot light ladder. (1.8 m), in case of the old tall trees, I had to go for a 9-foot ladder (2.75 m). The orchards were scattered throughout Summerland region in the valley of Lake Okanagan. Sometimes we picked on a flat surface, occasionally we were barely balancing on the ladder above a cliff overlooking a river canyon. Often, during our work, we had a chance to enjoy the fascinating views of the surrounding hills and the lake.

 

Picking began every morning at 5 AM. Each picker grabbed a couple of boxes (lugs), a ladder, and was assigned a part of a row or individual trees. Throughout the day I might have changed the row or orchard several times, but each time my supervisor tried to divide the trees fairly equally between the workers. I dropped the stack of boxes in my row, attached the barcode stickers on the handles and clipped the lug to the lumbar strap of the harness. For the next eight hours, there was nothing that could stop me. Time was money, we never picked later than1-2 PM, so I honestly gave a crap about taking breaks, unless it was strictly necessary. We all worked as hard as we could. Within the group, we were motivating each other and getting better each day.

 

The basic rule of a successful picker is not to waste your precious time. During the season, your picking technique will gradually improve. You'll find out what is the best way to set up your ladder to get the maximum reach. Your fingers and palms will learn to grab more fruits every time. Over time, you get used to the continuous back pain and sore shins (caused by resting your shins on the rungs). Your resistance will increase significantly, and you will be more easily able to overcome the discomfort resulting from dehydration and increased physical load.

 

The capacity of the box (lug) hanging on your chest is approximately 24 pounds (depending on the variety), i.e., less than 11 kg. We received 5 CAD net (23 cents per pound) for each full box. Whoever has survived all the season got a bonus of 2 extra cents per pound at the very end.

There were days when we earned 80 CAD per day only, but there were also another days we were able to make 220 CAD for 8 to 9 hours of work in the orchards full of fruit.

 

I  gradually improved from a complete cherry picker beginner to the TOP 5 best pickers of the season. With a record of 44 boxes per day and an average of 30 - 35 boxes per day. During these 6 weeks of work, I picked in total 1,104 boxes, 27,084 pounds of cherries, i.e., 12,3 tonnes of fruit.

 

Cherry picking is undoubtedly a hard job, just like any other farm job. However, if you move your ass, it can be a very lucrative activity (1,000 CAD net per week). If I compare cherry picking to apple picking, believe it or not, cherry picking is like a walk through a rose garden (apple picking is way too hard). I love cherry picking, and I hope I will have a chance to pick somewhere in the future again.

Everyone was pleasantly tuned at 5 AM

Prepared boxes for the first hour of work

Well, isn't that beautiful?

Picking above the canyon

Most importantly put the bandage on cracked fingertips

Another of the many views

Picker's equipment: backpack, lug, ladder, and water

And that's how the pro Andrew does: he breaks the branch, throws it over his shoulder, and picks.