Harvest Time

One of the most heated debates in the recall election centers on whether or not illegal immigrants should have California driver's licenses, with detractors of the plan already gathering signatures for a ballot measure to overturn the legislature and governor's recent decision to grant the licenses to undocumented residents. In an anti-license/immigrant editorial by columnist Joseph Perkins that recently appeared in the local Lake County paper, the claim is made that "there are more than enough Americans willing to pick fruit and harvest produce," as he breezily dismisses the contributions of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers whose labor feeds this nation.

But what does Joseph Perkins know about farm labor? Probably not much, since if he did he'd likely be on the other side of the licensing argument. On the North Coast the mobile illegals come through in two passes each year, in the winter during pruning season, and in the mid-summer and fall for the harvest. The pruning done to the 2600-odd acres of pear trees in Lake and Mendocino counties is typical of the kind of work that the Anglo community is unwilling to do, and with good reason. While pruning fruit trees is not as taxing as the frantic pace of the harvests, it's still not for the meek. Some campesinos can still do the job into their 40s, but by middle-age ladder work takes its toll. Leaning off the ladder puts all one's weight on a single knee for hours at a time causing pain in the joint, while the steps put your entire body weight on the arch of one foot, causing additional chronic discomfort. The work is done during the wet-and-cold season, and in Lake County the job often begins before sun-up with the temperature hovering in the mid-20s. Each tree requires hundreds of cuts with the hand-snips, which by the end of the day curl your hand into an arthritic claw. To complete the picture add a 33- to 45-pound ladder to tote around all day that usually has to be yanked out of the mud for each of the four-to-ten ladder sets it takes to get around each tree, and you'll have an aching lower back to go along with your foot, your knee, your hand and frozen ass problems. Pay is on a per-tree basis, with the going rate between $3 and $3.50 per tree. A good worker can make $12 to $14 an hour on average, which even with sky-high local unemployment rates isn't enough to get white folks to spend their day scrambling up-and-down a sixteen-foot ladder.

Pruning grapes is a good deal easier, so a fair amount gets done by women, unlike the pears, which, like all ladder work, is done by the men only. The pay is less than the pears mainly because no ladders are involved, and like pear pruning the key is to set a steady pace and be consistent and thorough. If the weather is good you can take an occasional moment to enjoy the beauty of the great outdoors, but the day's pay is dependent on how far down the row you are at dusk, so the breaks are kept short in order to make the most of the precious daylight hours.

Harvest season begins during the peak of summer, starting with the Mendocino pear crop. Work begins as soon as it's light enough to see the pears in the trees, so that the crew can knock off before the hottest part of the day arrives. All the downsides of ladder work are there, along with the strain of having a 40-pound sack of fruit hanging off your side as you stretch to reach that one last piece of fruit that will save you another time-and-effort draining ladder-set. By the end of the day a really good picker can put four tons of fruit in the bins and make well over $100, though on average wage of around $14 or $15 bucks an hour is closer to the norm. The work is done at a brisk pace with usually just one short mid-morning break for lunch, so the ranks of the picking crews are generally filled with young men in their late teens and early twenties, though the occasional 30- and even 40-something campesino toughs it out with the youngsters. It's all over in six or seven hours of almost non-stop hustle, but if the fruit is ripening the pressure to wrap things up can mean that only Sunday will be set aside to recover and rest-up for the next week.

With grapes the timing is frequently even more critical, and the pace is like nothing you'll ever see in the workplace of white America. The work day often begins in the pre-dawn semi darkness with the temperature near freezing, and ends with it close to 100 degrees, the goal is to be able to knock-off by 2pm, or hopefully an hour earlier. Each crew of between eight and fourteen pickers works around one tractor hauling a gondola on a trailer behind it, as four rows are stripped of their fruit simultaneously. The clearance between the tractor and vines is virtually nil, and extreme care has to be taken by the driver to constantly make sure all six wheels aren't about to crush someone's foot, especially on the hills. About 10% of the pickers are female — some of the toughest women you'll ever meet. Each crew also usually has a counter and sorter, who are typically females. The pickers shout out their assigned number as they heft each tub-full into the gondola, and the counter echoes back the number to confirm the tally of the worker's effort. The sorter stands inside the gondola and tosses out the leaves and other debris that ends up in the sticky, wet mess of grapes that quickly fills the huge metal box. It seems like one of the better jobs in the operation until you realize the person standing in the knee-high liquid is likely to be wearing a grungy pair of sneakers, and is thoroughly soaked in grape juice even on the coldest mornings.

But the pace and effort expended sorting is nothing like that of picking, which is as hard as it gets in any workplace. The task begins with slashing the clusters of grapes from the vines with a hook-shaped razor-sharp knife underneath the sometime very dense foliage, making inadvertent wounds from the instrument a constant concern. One hand holds the knife as the other steadies the cluster and guides it into the plastic tub laying on the ground, which is slid along the row with the side of your foot. It sounds easy, but as the tub fills it gets harder and harder to get it to slide over the dirt clod-strewn ground directly underneath the trellises. You could bend over to move it, but since it needs to be moved every 18 inches or so, your lower back would be a ball of pain by the end of the day. So the choice of tub-moving methods comes down to the almost equally painful side-loading your knee option or straining your back.

But that's not the end of it. The really tough part comes when the tub is full, and the trip to the gondola begins. If you're in the rows closest to the tractor you can just run up to the gondola and shove your load over the top, but the bulk of the crew isn't that lucky. For them it's a struggle to wiggle between the vines and the irrigation lines running halfway up the trellis, a space frequently no larger than 18 inches. Doing it while holding the 40-plus pounds of grapes in the tub is no small feat, especially for the guys on the furthest side of the outer rows, who have two sets of pipes and wires to slip between. But once you've made your way (at a trot, no less) to the gondola, there's one more hurdle to clear. The edge of the gondola is at shoulder level or higher, and after the first 50 loads you've heaved over the top you tend to lose some of your gusto. This is where the strong but short women have the hardest time, and hope a helping hand is nearby so they can keep up with the crew. The Hispanic reverence for women usually comes into play here, and it's considered the gentlemanly thing to do to take the hand-off over the wires and to save the gals the struggle of getting it over the top of the gondola.

The action doesn't stop except for an occasional momentary break as another tractor pulls an empty gondola into position, lunch has to wait until after the work is done. Pay runs in the $12 to $14 dollar-an-hour range, but a really good picker can pull down $100 a day. The ironic part is that the people picking the grapes in Lake and Mendocino counties aren't likely to be able to be able to afford the final product, though after seeing the dirt, bugs and other slop in the gondolas, they might not feel that they're missing much.

The last part of the harvest is the walnuts, which are becoming more mechanized in recent years, though most of the local crop is still brought in with the hand-and-bucket method . The workers run the full range of ages, with plenty of women joining the effort. Pay is half that of grape wages, but proceeds at a more sedate pace, and can be done sitting down. The big concern with the walnuts is to get them in before the first heavy rains, which can make the job truly miserable. Either lots of dust or lots of mud is the rule, along with aching backs, cramped hands and finger tips worn raw.

The basic truth of the matter is that the average American wouldn't last a day on any picking crew, and that if the pundits calling for the expulsion of the undocumented workforce spent a day in the vineyards and orchards of rural America we'd never again hear them rant about illegals stealing our jobs.

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