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Friday, 19 August 2016

True North Wild & Free - Round 2, Cherries

After mushroom picking in the Yukon, followed immediately by attending the amazing Astral Harvest music festival north of Edmonton, I beelined over to Vancouver to rest, decompress and digest all these amazing adventures in the safe haven of my old collective house.

But it wasn't long before I got itchy (bare) feet and decided to give cherry picking another try. Ten days later I was back on a farm in the hot and dry Okanagan and back in my simple but beautiful home - my green Coleman tent.
The sun rises on the orchard. We have already been picking for 2 hours!

Life's a beach
I have awesome memories of my first cherry picking season at Coral Beach farm two summers ago. So I was pretty disappointed when I arrived at Sundher's farm - there was scarce flat land and shade for camping, and the amenities were relatively bare. I learned later on that Coral Beach is a rare exception among farms that accommodate pickers, providing a luxury experience.

The vast majority of the pickers here were French speaking Quebecers. No offense - there is nothing wrong with them, but they like to speak French, and too many of them means they only speak in French, leaving me feeling excluded, and I'm not outgoing or energetic enough to impose upon their conversation.

On my first day of work, I picked 17 buckets of cherries, which, at $5.00 each, meant I took home $85, not bad for a first day.

Needless to say, patience, not panic, was needed on all fronts. The situation would surely improve. Well, just like the first season, it was a rollercoaster ride full of changes that caused highs and lows in my temperament. But overall it was a more interesting and drama filled season that made the first season feel like child's play.

The primary reason for the increased drama was the climate. It was an El Nino and La Nina year, producing much more rain than normal in the Okanagan, which wreaked havoc on cherry production, as well as on picking conditions. This made it tough on farm owners, managers and pickers alike, and they, in turn, behaved erratically, spiralling the drama upon eachother.

This exacerbated the turnover of pickers, who were getting fired, leaving and newly arriving on a near daily basis. Halfway through my season, the ratio of English speakers increased to around 30%, with a few Spanish speakers arriving, travellers with work Visas from Mexico, Spain and Italy. By the time I left the farm, over half the pickers were Spanish speaking!

Patience paid off as usual on the social front, and I started bonding with some of the pickers. I even befriended pickers from another farm, camped across the road from the beach that I frequently visited. The people I met this time around were somehow different from two years ago - older, more mature, and more hippie.

On the picking front, things were challenging. After the decent start, I burned out physically and mentally, worn down by the heat and unable to find my motivation. I picked much worse this season, with the poor La Nina crop but a cheap excuse. My best day was 21 buckets, lower than the 30 buckets from my first year, and embarrassingly lower than the top picker, who was consistently picking over 60 buckets, or $300 per day!

This is why cherry picking is such a humbling experience. It actually demands a fine balance of toughness, focus and technique. And a good cherry picker can actually make money. But by society's account, it's not considered a serious job. In my own Chinese culture, agricultural work is even looked down upon, compared to being a doctor or - *swallows* - an engineer.

Anyway, I seriously questioned myself throughout the season. Not that I want to make a career out of cherry picking. But I seriously toughened myself up morel picking, and expected to continue the momentum in to better cherry picking. I was seriously wrong -- humbled again!

In the end, I have no regrets, as usual. Like any experience, it's the people that shape it, and I made some really meaningful connections. Seasonal workers - whether they're picking mushrooms, cherries, apples, etc. - are some of the most inspiring people I've ever met, living within nature, not outside of it, and embracing an alternative lifestyle, refusing to cave to the standards and demands of mainstream society.

Rock climbing at world famous Skaha
Round 2 of cherries serves as another memory along my lane, another notch on my belt, during an epic summer which is quickly becoming the best one of my 32 year long life.

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