An Afternoon on a Cherry Picking Farm in British Columbia

Note: Every year thousands of migrant workers from all over the world head to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia to pick the harvest. The cherries, which ripen in late June or early July, are the main attraction. My girlfriend and I spent two months working in the Okanagan Valley. This is a sketch of an afternoon on a cherry farm in Kelowna, BC.

*

The sky falls silver and tangerine over rows of cherry trees as a skinny tatted-up Canadian opens the door of his rusty cantaloupe-colored camper holding a makeshift bong and exhales a cloud of smoke. A group of pickers from Spain and Mexico are camped in the gravel parking lot, and behind them solo tents are tucked between the rows where we pick from 4 AM until the sun becomes so hot the cherries burst between our fingers and splatter juice into our buckets. An old van full of French Canadian girls in their 20’s—lean, dirty, dreadlocked—is parked in the low shade of the apple trees, and a girl washes her feet under the cool water of our outdoor shower, a garden hose hung from a wooden post.

The clouds lay low in the sky like fish scales, pointillist dabs of light, a peach ripening backwards. Cicadas buzz, a small group of pickers laughs, and the sound of a digeridoo floats across the farm—there are cherries to be picked in Australia too, and many people here have already worked that circuit.

 

**

The woman who camps next to us talks to herself inside her tent, “Leave me alone! I’m not bothering anyone...yes… how is she doing? It’s not worth it… No. It’s too much. Too much.” Like us, she’s come to pick cherries for $2.50 a bucket. But unlike us, she’s in her late fifties, wears knee braces and walks with a cane.

She’s been farming and picking all her life. “My father had a farm in Kelowna,” she told me yesterday, her glassy-gray eyes looking off in the distance as she spoke.

But her father is gone now, and so is the farm.

And the pays no good when you can’t pick fast. And it’s dangerous to climb ten-foot ladders to reach the tops of the cherry trees when your middle-aged and out of shape.

 

***

In the parking-lot-circle a group of young Mexicans are talking. A husky, bearded German looking fellow from Mexico City is pissed off. He says the bong-smoking Canadian who has doves tattooed on his neck and teardrops on his cheek talks too much shit and he’s tired of it. He thinks he’s a racist.

I listen, and recall last night when the Canadian guy came back from the fields under a half-moon with handfuls of Rainier cherries to share with the group.

“I’m from the Detroit of Canada,” he told me. “Been picking 15 years…Well, I missed a few seasons…Lost my wife, house, everything…heroin…So how goes it with your homie Trump? Big fan?”

He talks shit like we do back in Jersey, I think. To laugh, to keep the wits sharp.

“No. It’s too much,” says the Mexican, “Demasiado.”

As he's talking, the tatted-up Canadian comes down from his camper and joins the group. There’s a brief silence until Ivan, a long-haired friendly Mexican in his early 20’s, cuts straight to the point,“Hey mon,” he says, “you got problems with Mexicans?”

To which the Canadian replies: “Noo, no problem with Mexicans. Just the motherfuckers who come here and do the same jobs for half the wages! And they hire them. I get it. If I could pay a guy half the price to do the same job, I would. But the people, no man, I love everybody. I don’t give a fuck where you’re from. Ha! But yeah, fuck those motherfuckers who work their asses off…But man, you guys. You guys are cool…you work like me.”

And all the Mexicans in our circle, young, educated, urban Millennials, traveling hippies from the city, internet kids, seem to forgive him, or at least understand him because he talks with a smile and sad, sad eyes and a tear-drop laugh that says I’m beaten and I’m sorry—which you can’t translate yet in emojis, and because they know who he’s talking about, the Mexican men my girlfriend Maribel calls los paisanos, who come from Chiapas and Oaxaca, Michoacán and Zacatecas (where Maribel is from), men with strong backs and huge hands who never say “I’m tired” and work 12 hour days for $10 an hour, six days a week for 6-8 months straight on big commercial vineyards and farms all over the Okanagan Valley; lonely dignified men who light up when they see Maribel and buy us sodas in town and share their beer in the park and secretly goosebump when they talk about their homes in the mountains of Chiapas or near the beaches of Sonora where they have families, friends, properties and respect in their communities. We all know who these men are, who hang back on the outskirts of Oliver, humble, soft-spoken, clean and well-dressed, not political or spiritual like the hippies who skateboard in the park, play guitars, slack-line, drink openly, rip big bongs and pass joints, talk wide-eyed about ayahuasca and energy, chakras and yoga, drop acid at Loose Bay Campground and take afternoon naps in their work-clothes in vans jampacked with their lives because order and cleanliness still have no place in their ideologies—no, these are grown men who know what the fuck their doing on a farm, not like us, not like us.

And we can see this Canadian guy doesn’t even hate these men; he’s simply beat and he knows it. The paisanos are professional farmers shipped in from a part of the world where $10 an hour means more than poverty and struggle.

The German-looking Mexican relaxes, takes a rip from the bong, and the conversation shifts to more immediate concerns like cherry-picking strategy and whether the East Indians who own the farm that we’re working on will put up a real shower, or if they’re going to spray insecticide in the rows of young cherry trees where many of us are camped.

And soon after, the Canadian with the rusty cantaloupe-colored camper, with his lost wife, heroin-veins and face-tats, and the adventurers who make EDM music in Mexico City and have come to Canada with the dream of leaving with a bundle of unaxed Canadian dollars that will go far back home where a good meal costs $2 and some change, pile into a jalopy sedan that rattles down the dirt road between the rows, and then further down the windy hill past a fancy vineyard where another class of people are stepping out of expensive cars ready to taste wine and socialize, to the liquor store for cider, beer and tobacco.

I watch them leave, then go back to our tent where Maribel is organizing our clothes under the dim light of an electric lantern.

Next door, the woman is still muttering to herself, but softly now as if in a daze.

We’re tired, dirty, and I’m a little stoned. At 4:00 AM we’ll rise with the sun, but not at all like it—grumpy and inconstant—brush teeth, tie shoes, strap buckets to shoulders, a snack of bread, cherries and water as we walk through the rows—the near-black leaves and branches arching above us like a tunnel, the cherries bunched tight, blood-red and crimson, meaty and delicious, and to many (though not yet for us) even profitable.

 

 

*A good article about Mexican migrant workers in Canada.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/13/world/canada/canada-migrants-temporary-farmworkers-program.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news