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Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Art of Picking Cherries

Welcome to the wonderful world of fruit picking in BC! Come and allow me to open your eyes to a lifestyle of working in nature, and living in a community of transient workers, many of whom live a double life as adventurers and travelers.
A bunch of cherries (note: ripe cherries are a darker red)
My own adventure starts in the gorgeous Okanagan region of British Columbia, defined by its rolling hills and arid climate, which is almost considered to be desert, due to its low humidity and high temperatures. It produces an abundance of fruit including some of the best cherries in the world, sought after in countries such as China and Japan, which place a high value on cherries.

Coral Beach Farms ( is one of the largest cherry farms in Canada. Its full scale operation includes several orchards, a processing and sorting factory, an office, and campsites for up to 300 migrant cherry pickers from July to September.

My campsite is within the farm and just off Lake Okanagan, with amazing lake views, and has a capacity of 150 people. It comes complete with a large tent area, kitchens, a huge walk-in refrigeration unit, washrooms, washing machines and, yes, Wifi! It's also just a 5-minute walk to the lake.
Exterior kitchen area
All this sounds glorious so far, and it certainly is. But it's not all fun and games. Cherry picking work is nothing like the serene image you may conjure up of a weekend family visit to the local cherry farm. It is intense, physically demanding work, and the technique and skill involved qualifies cherry picking to be its own art form.

Here are the main things to consider when picking cherries for commercial sale. Cherries with the stem on lasts 3 days longer than without the stem. Thus, cherries must be picked with the stem in order to ship them fresh to China. Many stems are attached to the tree by the spur, which houses the buds for next year's cherries. Thus, cherries must also be picked without removing the spurs.
Cherry with stem; cherry without stem; cherry with spur (tiny buds on top)
While high quality cherries must be picked, picking a large quantity also maximizes Coral Beach's sales, and also the individual picker's profits. I am paid not hourly, but by picked weight ($0.24/pound). The perfect balance of quality and quantity must be achieved when cherry picking, demanding a consistent, high level of concentration over a 7-9 hour day picking cherries in the Okanagan's dry heat.

The bucket, or tote, which contains the cherries is suspended from my shoulder harness in front of me, supported by my waist. To pick cherries fastest, I position myself directly under a bunch of cherries in a tree so that I can easily snap the stem and let them fall into the bucket. If I can't position myself directly under a bunch, then I will be reaching for the cherries, grabbing them and tossing them into the bucket, which wastes time and energy.

I am given a ladder between 9 and 14 feet long. Laddering, or the act of placing the ladder, is crucial in maximizing convenient access to cherries. Laddering itself is an art, as creative placements over branches are often needed to reach those cherries that are really high up in the tree and appear out of reach.
Near the top of a 9 foot ladder with my tote directly under a bunch of cherries
I tag my own buckets with specially made labels with my name and a serial code, so that I get paid what I pick. Also, in order to ensure that I do my job properly there is quality control staff who sift through my tagged and filled buckets. A high rate of stemless cherries or spurs can result in a loss in pay.

My cherries then get submitted to the factory where they are cleaned and sorted by personnel (of which I helped for an afternoon). The sorting is done mainly by Mexican immigrant workers because it is a tedious and undesirable job, unlike cherry picking, whose prestige attracts migrant workers and travelers from far and wide. The premium cherries, with zero defects, will be shipped to China or Japan while the ones with minor defects will be sold locally.

Learning about this entire process has given me an appreciation for this luxurious fruit and how much it costs. For example, my farm has a helicopter that flies over the cherries after a rainfall to dry them, because a cherry that gets wet before it's ripe will split its skin near the stem.
This picture shows a lot of the operation
Unfortunately, cherries are rarely grown and sold organic because farmers risk losing up to half their crop without pesticides. Occasionally the pesticides cause itchy eyes and sneezing, but I put up with it because I have no choice.

On my first day of picking cherries, I managed to pick 7 totes, a profit of only $35. About a week later I managed 19 totes, making about $100. However, I heard someone collected 58 totes, for over $300 profit in one day! That guy might be a highballer! Highballers mean serious business, and have likely been cherry picking for several seasons. In fact, there is a section of the campsite reserved for their tents only.

I am learning and becoming more familiar with the art form everyday. And anyway, I hear the early season is slow. Mid-season is when the lapin species of cherries arrives and cherry picking becomes a lot easier and bountiful! Lapins are cherry gold :)
Hanging out with some amazing people at the campsite. More on camp life in the next blog!

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