I arrive at an apple orchard at 6:30am Monday through Saturday. My body hurts even though (or possibly because) I get 10-12 hours of sleep a night. I have to. I can’t stay awake because I’m always so exhausted from work the previous day. I used to start work at 7:00am, but my work crew and I agreed it would be best to get to work thirty minutes earlier so we could work thirty minutes less under the hot sun. So it’s cool and there’s dew on the ground when I get out of the van I pay $5 a week to ride to work in.
I put my backpack full of water bottles and snacks next to a row of apple trees. Then I slather SPF 30 suntan lotion on my face, arms, and legs. I put sports tape around my thumbs and pointer fingers to cover the dirty scars around my cuticles where branches have gouged them. I put on a big, floppy hiking hat, and I start picking excess apples off of my row of trees and throwing them on the ground.
Apple trees are strange trees. Some of the branches hang like octopus arms, and some grow at crooked Tetris angles up, down, left, right. Sometimes when I’m weaving my way through them I pretend like I’m a Shaolin martial arts master, and I make chopping and blocking motions with my arms to move them aside. I don’t get too into it though because I need to conserve my energy. Sometimes I pretend I’m a treasure hunter digging through an impenetrable wall of branches looking for treasure…but I’ve never found any treasure. So far all I’ve found is apples… and pain.
Apples grow on the branches in clusters sort of like grapes. Clusters sizes range from 2 to 20. Each tree has hundreds of clusters. My goal is to pick the apples out of those clusters until each cluster contains one or two apples and those clusters are spaced far enough apart to give the remaining apples room to grow. For reasons nobody has explained to me, different apple trees require different sizes of clusters. Also, the tops of the trees need to be picked thinner than the bottoms of the trees; that’s to prevent the heavy apples from breaking the budding branches.
The whole reason apple trees are thinned is because the remaining apples on the tree will get bigger and juicier. Small apples taste bad, and consumers want big, pretty apples anyway. So the trees have to get thinned, and this job can’t be automated. It has to be done by human hands. Unfortunately for the farmers, nobody wants to do this job, because it’s really quite terrible. This is how terrible it is. Child protective service would take away your children if you made your children do a week’s worth of apple thinning for breaking one of your rules. It’s bad enough to be child abuse, but it’s worse than that because it breaks full-grown men and women.
Apple thinning doesn’t require any heavy lifting (though apple picking does), but neither does cross-country jogging. Apple thinning is a physical, intellectual and emotional endurance contest. Before you even touch an apple tree you have to study it like an artist reassessing a work of art. You identify the flaws in the art, decide on a plan of action and execute your plan. Then you repeat that process all day for nine hours. Playing your favorite video game for nine hours a day every day would be torturous. Picking apples is like playing a boxing game on a Nintendo Wee all day, every day… in the hot sun.
When you walk up to the tree and start snapping off all the excess apples with your thumb and forefinger you have to navigate your way around the branches (like a Shaolin Monk). This requires bending over, reaching overhead and getting on your knees. You always have to carry a big, shiny aluminum (or a cast iron) ladder with you, because after you’ve picked all the apples from one side of the tree that you can reach standing on the ground you climb up the ladder and get the apples on top of the tree. When you’re on top of your ladder you can see out all over the orchard district. It’s surreal up there. All you see are rows of green trees all the way to the horizon. Hobbit hills and windmills are the only other thing between you and the big blue, blazing sky. Each orchard is surrounded by a thick line of coniferous trees cut to look like giant hedges. They keep the wind from blowing through the orchard and making the apples smack together and bruise. So there’s never more than a light breeze on the ground, but sometimes you’ll find a cool breeze when you climb to the top of your ladder. Feeling that breeze and looking out over a sea of parallel green waves you feel like you’re outside of the world. It’s a unique experience that I’m glad I’ve had.
But the serenity is spoiled by the fact that you have to thin a straight row of 200 trees in 9 hours in the hot sun while your body is undernourished because you’re barely paid more than minimum wage and can only afford to buy processed food. Even with a healthy diet, repeating the same yoga stretches for 9 hours per day every day will overstrain and hurt your muscles. You certainly wouldn’t want to do 9 hours of ladder yoga in the blazing hot sun. If you attempted that iron-yoga challenge your body would need more than ten minutes of rest in the morning, a thirty-minute break for lunch and another ten-minute break in the afternoon, but that’s all the breaks apple thinners and pickers get. Most apple thinners even cut that short because they’re so desperate to pick more apples and make even slightly more than minimum wage.
Nobody stands behind you and watches you all day. So you can take as many breaks from your ladder yoga as you want, but you have to weigh the value of listening to your body and taking a break against the fact that you have no money, and you get paid by how many trees you thin. So if you push yourself beyond your breaking point and sustain that level of exertion for three to six weeks then you can make enough money to live off of for two months until apple picking starts. If you can’t maintain that pace you’ll be fired anyway.
You don’t want to get fired because you need to eat, and you don’t want to be homeless. Plus, if you impress your boss then in two months’ time you can come back and do the same job over again, except instead of ripping off tiny apples and tossing them carelessly on the ground you pick the full-grown apples and place them delicately in a huge bucket hanging across your chest. Once your bucket is back-breakingly full you climb down your ladder, walk to a plastic bin somewhere down your row, kneel down and pull two strings on either side of your chest bucket, which opens the bottom of the bucket letting the apples tumble out into the plastic bin (just like cherry picking). Then you stand back up and go fill your bucket again for 9 hours in the hot sun. You can make better money apple picking than you can apple thinning. So you definitely don’t want to miss that.
Apple thinning and apple picking would only be mildly excruciating if it weren’t for the ladder. Modern, aluminum ladders are light (as far as 8-foot tall ladders go), but I shudder at the thought of somebody’s grandparents and great-grandparents doing these jobs with iron and wooden ladders. If you’re having a hard time imagining what that would be like, put an A-frame ladder in your backyard next Saturday, and make a goal out of picking up that ladder 200 times at regular intervals over 9 hours and moving it to another part of your backyard and climbing to the top and doing yoga… in the hot sun. Your back will hate you for it…forever, possibly. If you carry stress balls with you the entire 9 hours and squeeze them constantly then by the end of the day your hands will swell and keep you awake at night throbbing in pain, and you’ll have a good idea of what the people who pick the apples in your kitchen go through to survive.
If you do anything outside all day, inevitably you’ll get sunburned. You could cover up when apple thinning, but the more you cover up the hotter and heavier you’ll be. For men, it’s best to wear light shoes and shorts. I’ve seen female apple thinners wearing nothing but bikinis. One of the perks of the job. Another perk of apple thinning is that you can smoke while you work. That perk is undermined by the fact that, if your orchard has a bathroom at all, it’s too far away to go to. You could lose five or eight dollars worth of working time just by walking all the way to the bathroom and back once. So wash the apples you buy from the store. There’s a good chance they were fondled by calloused, burnt, scratched, suntan lotion-slathered, pee-splattered hands. Most of the apples sold at big grocery stores were also sprayed multiple times with pesticides, insecticides and other chemicals you’ve never heard of through the course of their lives.
When you thin or pick apples the dust from the dried poisons rubs off onto your palms until they’re black. It gets into your scratches, it falls in your eyes. You breathe it in. It rubs off of your fingers onto your sandwich at lunch and onto your hand-rolled cigarettes. The farmer assures you it’s harmless poison, but you know you’re going to die of cancer now someday. So you don’t feel as bad about smoking anymore. One of the perks of the job.
You have to find good things to think of when apple thinning. You have to think of something for 9 hours. Something has to keep your body moving forward repeating an action that every muscle in your body and every ounce of common sense is telling you to stop. Of course, what keeps you moving is that you’ve got no place else to go, and if you can’t endure this Chinese torture method then you die of starvation.
So you pick and pick and pick and pick and pick. You try not to think about how mind-numbingly boring it is to just pick pick pick pick all day long. But it’s hard not to think about it when it’s all you do, and there’s never any change in the routine. Every tree looks more or less the same, and after you’ve done enough trees you’ve seen all the variations of cluster sizes and locations. Eventually, it all blurs into one long, timeless moment. The seconds pass like glaciers. Anytime you look to your left or your right all you see are identical rows of apples. There’s no goal you can work towards. There are no checkpoints you can reach where you get to do something different. There’s just no end in sight. It’s pushing a boulder up a hill all day just to push it back up after you finish. But instead of climbing a hill, you climb a ladder, and instead of a big boulder, it’s little apples. The same little apples everywhere. When you close your eyes you see apples. When you dream, you dream about a wall of apples falling on top of you. Sometimes you want to just run the orchard maniacally shouting, “APPLES!… APPLES! APPLES!” Sometimes you want to ball up into a fetal position against a tree trunk and mumble, “applesapplesapples.”
It helps if you listen to music. I shudder to think of somebody’s grandparents and great-grandparents apple thinning with no music or aluminum ladders. Even if you listen to music you end up listening to the same songs over and over again until you hate them. I’ll never be able to listen to Pink Floyd again. The apple orchard took that from me. Now I find it helps to listen to techno music, because it’s fast, and there aren’t idiotic words pounding in your skull all day. I also like listening to foreign music, because I can’t understand the words, and that helps me zone out. A Slovenian I work with gave me some music, and I’ve been listening to Oda Gudeki by MI2 lately. It makes me smile, and I’m going to be sad when I’ve listened to it so many times I hate it.
Sometimes I sing the chorus of “The Lemon Tree” song except I change the lyrics to “apple trees” instead of “lemon tree.” My taste in music would drive some people insane if they had to listen to it all day, as their’s would me. You have to figure out what works for you and hope you have that kind of music available. One thing is for sure, if you listen to slow, sad music it will slow you down and sap your will to go on.
Sometimes you can’t stand the music anymore and you just have to turn it off and try to enjoy the absolute silence of the apple field. Sometimes your music player breaks or runs out of batteries or doesn’t exist and you have to endure nine hours of almost total silence every day without the benefit of music to help you forget that you exist. Then you’re alone with your thoughts. It’s like being in solitary confinement, except you’re forced to do excruciating yoga outside as you wrestle with your thoughts. It can be quite revelatory, and if you’ve got any fight in you, fighting apple trees will wear it out of you. Apple thinning would be a good way to get the fight out of juvenile delinquents. Well, that or it’ll teach them that hard work only pays barely enough to survive and selling drugs is a lot easier and more lucrative. And if you get caught selling drugs and go to jail, at least you won’t have to work in an apple orchard. So… life could be worse.
It was inevitable that some apple thinner out there has and will use drugs at work to speed them up or help them forget where they are, and inevitably somebody is going to fall off their ladder, especially when it’s cold, windy and/or rainy. Of course, the farmer who owns the orchards will do as little as possible to attend to their workers’ medical needs. After all, if farmers cared about their workers’ health then they wouldn’t work them past the limits of human endurance to begin with.
Even if you have a strong mind and good music, everybody breaks a little eventually. You can’t keep up 9 hours of constant mind-numbing yoga torture forever. Every once a while you have to just sit down (even if it’s not break time yet) and curse your life, the apples, the farmer, God and yourself for getting you into this fuck-awful situation.
Sometimes you work for an ignorant country farmer who has been doing backbreaking work all his life and owns a giant country home surrounded by orchards full of disposable slaves making him richer. The only thing standing between the farmer and more money is the physical and mental limitations and pay expectations of his workers. So some farmers pay their workers less money per tree than is fair. Some farmers degrade and harass underperforming workers, then fire them after they’re burnt out so he can bring in a fresh crop of (hopefully more desperate) workers who are willing to put up with lower pay and worse treatment. Sometimes you end up working for farmers who smile to your face and bring you water and even buy you a little beer and thank you for sacrificing your body, mind, and the irreplaceable moments of your life to make him richer while you’re spending the prime of your life in a death race scraping by with one foot in the gutter. Sometimes you get lucky like that.
A wiser man than myself once said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Another man once said, “Life doesn’t suck because you’re unlucky. Life sucks because you’re a dumbass.” (paraphrased) There’s a lot of truth to both of those statements. I work with an ex-con who can’t get a “real” job because of his criminal record. Some people would say he’s sleeping in the bed he made. I can recognize without being told that I, myself, am working in an apple field because I screwed up. I took some joy in the first two weeks of pain by telling myself I deserved to be there, that I was paying penance for screwing up. So don’t feel any sympathy for me or my ex-con friend. But feel sympathy for the billions of other people in the world who’s are spending their lives in orchards, fields, kitchens, warehouses, factories, and offices even though they never screwed up. They’ve been doing what they were supposed to: working. Working at degrading, inhumane jobs and doing a great job of it. They just don’t get to keep enough of the profits from their work to achieve stability in their lives because their bosses (the job creators) wants a bigger house and longer vacations.
More than sympathy for the oppressed, we should all feel ashamed every time we walk into the fruits and vegetable section of our local grocery stores, because everything you see there has blood on it, literally and figuratively. Apparently, that’s not important enough to motivate us to demand better pay, shorter work hours and more profit-sharing for workers. It should also motivate us to reassess our standard business practices to identify and rectify the flaws that cause all business owners to feel pressured to pay their workers as little as possible to make ends meet. The call to action isn’t to throw rotten apples at orchard owners. The call to action is to replace our economy with a more sustainable, more humane model.
If you enjoyed this story, you’ll also like these:
My Life Stories (in chronological order)
The Life of the Poor