Every day starts in a different orchard and ends when we get the field picked or it gets too hot. The foreman will tell the guys where tomorrow’s patch will be before they go home, but there’s one thing he doesn’t have to tell them; tomorrow’s start time.
The starting time is as sure as the sunrise and set by the sunrise. You will always witness the sunrise from a ladder in an orchard if you’re involved with stone fruit harvest.
Those predawn minutes are very crucial to a successful day; so the afternoon before, equipment—ladders, portable toilets, tractors, harvest trailers—are all serviced and moved into position so when the harvesters come, there is zero lost time. A minute at 5:30 is worth three at 12:00. Or more clearly, a 10-minute starting delay will add a half hour to a hot day, and it won’t add it to the cool end.
Since the harvesters are paid by the pound—they average about 20 bucks an hour—and the farmer is also essentially paid by the pound, and since the day typically moves from cool to hot, you have a synchronized group effort to get as much picked in the cool minutes as you can.
Aluminum ladders screeching off steel trailers can be heard from a mile away. Plastic boxes rattling, diesel tractors chugging to life, men yelling encouragement at each other, who’s going where doing what…
I’ve often thought of this cacophony from the perspective of the indigenous population; crickets, spiders, mice. I mean there they are minding their own business anticipating the dawn of another day in paradise when without warning this blitzkrieg of madmen rumbles in, destroying Charlotte’s masterpiece, tromping right in the middle of family breakfast with nary a ‘pardon me’ nor apology for the destruction; Cretans all!
Then 5 minutes later, all is comparatively calm. Everybody’s in their place doing their job, tractor’s off, the regular happy banter of men bragging over who picked the first, the most, yesterday’s futbol match (especially if it involved Las Chivas), and of course the weather.
To people who work under the open sky, the weather is always top of mind. In summer, heat sets a limit to how long work can reasonably get done, so mental calculations are happening in everyone’s head beneath the banter. So many rows, so many trees per row, so much fruit per tree…
There’s a timeless maxim that ‘work expands to fill time allotted’ and that’s never truer than a peach orchard’s harvest on a hot day.
Here’s another interesting insight into human nature. An outsider would think the foreman would need to be encouraging the crew: “come-on guys, hot day, let’s step it up so we can get done and go home!” Not on our farm. They are paid by the pound with quality bonuses, but that all goes to the group. Each guy makes as much as the other, so it’s peer not supervisor pressure. They all want to get done quick and right and if one guy isn’t pulling his share or doing a sloppy job, he’s gonna hear about it from the guys around him.
It’s a wonderful time-honed system. Come join us at daybreak any morning; the sunrise is always inspiring and we’ll have an extra ladder for ya, but the crickets and spiders won’t appreciate it much.