Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Cherry-Picking Facts

You probably think I’m going to discuss the selective appropriation of information that many people engage in. Sorry. I’m actually going to share a few facts about real cherries that get picked by real people. Nothing metaphorical here today, unless . . . well, we’ll see.
I grew up in North Ogden, Utah, a semirural community that was taking the necessary strides to become the full-fledged suburb it is today. My parents built a house on property my grandfather subdivided and sold off when I was six. Our house stood in a clearing among the scrub oak where my mom had driven the family’s cows to pasture as a girl. In pioneer days, the North Ogden bench was known as Storeytown, named for my mom’s ancestors who had settled the area.
My dad was a CPA and worked for a mortgage and loan in Ogden. My mom’s dad was also a CPA, but on the side he was a small-time fruit farmer. He had two modest cherry orchards and another orchard where a few gnarled apricot trees grew. Because of his accounting prowess, he also served as secretary/treasurer for the Utah Fruit Growers Association. Grandpa was also my employer. I mowed his lawn and did other yard work, and he also let me help out now and then in his accounting practice. But in my early years, I picked cherries for him, as did most of my close friends. It was a way to pick up some extra spending money, and Grandpa relied on local kids to harvest his fruit.
When I got a little older, I managed the orchards for him, which involved supervising the kids who picked the cherries, moving ladders for the smaller pickers, sawing off high branches, weighing the crates when they were full, recording the weights in a notebook, and delivering the full crates at the end of the workday to the packing plant in Ogden. Grandpa’s cherries mostly got shipped by train to distant places back east. The packing plant was down by the Ogden railroad yards, and whenever I made deliveries I came away happy I didn’t work there, like my sister and her friends. The packing plant was right next to a facility where they burned turkey feathers. If you’ve never smelled burned turkey feathers, well, consider yourself blessed.
Sweet cherries aren’t like pie cherries that you just shake off the tree onto large tarps that funnel the cherries into huge wooden boxes. Sweet cherries are for eating fresh, and they have to be picked with the stems on, otherwise they leak juice and become squishy. So picking sweet cherries is a very labor-intensive activity, and when you pick them, you grab the stems and pull upward, against the branch. That way they come off clean, but after a while your fingers get pretty sore from pulling on the stems. Cherry season doesn’t last long, so you really don’t have much chance to develop calluses. Bings ripen slightly earlier than Lamberts, so we would pick the Bings first before moving on to the Lambert orchard. All told, though, the entire season only lasted two or three weeks. So you had to get all the cherries off the trees in short order, before they got too ripe to ship. And that meant you had to have a pretty decent picking crew.
Grandpa paid by the pound, and picking cherries was not easy work, but kids had been picking cherries in North Ogden as summer work for decades. The hours were also bad. Since cherries ripen during the hot days of midsummer, picking started as soon as it was light enough to see which cherries were ripe, which was pretty early in late June and early July. We worked until about two o’clock. By then it was hot enough that all the kids wanted to stop for the day. My friends and I were pretty hard workers. We would have a competition to see who could get the most pounds in a day. But some kids were apparently there only because their parents thought they needed the experience of working for their spending money. Lots of these kids were rather unproductive. Often they’d last a few days, earn a few dollars, and quit. When I was an older teenager and was running the orchard, these spoiled kids were just a waste of my time. I appreciated the hard workers.
Every summer from when I was old enough to pick until I left on my mission, I spent a few weeks in Grandpa’s orchards. And at regular intervals throughout the summer, I was responsible for the irrigating. So I spent quite a bit of time in the orchards. Then I went off to Germany, and when I returned, I came down to BYU and never was involved in fruit farming again.
But about the time I got married, my dad retired, and he took over the orchards. In fact, he bought a piece of property next to Grandpa’s Lambert trees and planted a peach orchard. But in nine years between when I left on my mission and when my dad took over the orchards, something interesting happened. The kids changed. They wouldn’t pick cherries anymore. I don’t know what it was, but I have my suspicions. At any rate, my dad had to hire what we called, in those days, migrant workers. Mexicans. Today we’d probably call them illegal aliens. The larger orchards had been hiring them for years. And they were hard workers. They could clean a tree in short order, much faster than the local kids had ever been able to.
So, where am I going with this? I think there’s an analogy for our society in this story. The Republicans have made illegal immigration a centerpiece of their presidential campaign, but in doing so they’ve oversimplified the situation with threats to build walls and deport millions of illegal aliens rather than doing the hard work of real immigration reform, which is desperately needed and would be the charitable response to the dilemma. In a sense, they are the political equivalent of the kids in North Ogden after my dad took over the orchards. But the rhetoric sells well on the campaign trail; not so well in reality. The simplistic political rhetoric is that undocumented workers are stealing American jobs. But many of those jobs, like the cherry-picking labor of my youth, are jobs that no American is willing to take anymore.
Agriculture jobs are not very plentiful in today’s economy, relative to other labor categories, but according to the Pew Research Center, agriculture is the industry where undocumented workers are most overrepresented. Sixteen percent of agricultural workers are undocumented, although they represent only 5.1 percent of the workforce. The other industries where undocumented workers are overrepresented are construction (12%), leisure and hospitality (9%), professional (7%), and manufacturing (6%).
Farmers in America have come to depend on undocumented workers to harvest their crops. Just as my dad’s cherries would have shriveled on the trees without the Mexican pickers, so would much of America’s produce today go unharvested without undocumented workers, who are willing to do jobs American workers simply refuse to take. It’s hard work, and it doesn’t pay well. So we depend on illegal aliens for a fair share of the food we eat. We apparently rely on them for other types of undesirable work, too. So rather than engaging in ridiculous political rhetoric, let’s address the realities of this situation. And rather than rewarding politicians for being both unrealistic and offensive, let’s demand of them that they deal with difficult issues.

1 comment: