If I move too quickly my hair gets caught and matted amongst twigs and branches above me, holding me back by surprise. The weight on my shoulders increases with every new handful, making bending over feel like even more of a backbreaking event.
I reach my bare arm through the rough branches, ignoring the pain of the scratches, to reach that glimmer of red in the distance. With the bag hung over my shoulders at the same height as my hips it impedes my already limited abilities to stretch.
I grab that damned apple and then spot another and repeat the process; until the bag in front of me is so full it tries to pull me forward. I turn around to retreat to the open orchard, but first have to battle my way back over and under stubborn branches, while hulk-lifting the 25 pounds of apples I’ve just picked.
I emerge from under the shade of the tree, sweating and covered in leaves in my cleavage. I can smell the change of the season in the crisp fall air, but still feel the heat of the later summer sun on my skin.
I dump what feels like the weight of the world into the bin. Looking at my collection, it suddenly doesn’t seem so significant, like a teardrop in the ocean. Accepting how many more trips of the same it will take me to fill that bin, I head back to the tree, only this time, to face my nemesis of that rickety old ladder to retrieve the sun-loving most delicious looking apples at the top of the tree.
This may come as a shock to some, but I am not the farm-y-est of girls. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say I’m a princess or prissy or anything like that. I know some people are above getting their hands dirty and think that they’re better than manual labour and minimum wage. In the Annapolis Valley, apples are plentiful and there is a huge demand for workers this time of year. Thom and I have some pretty exciting travel plans coming up in January, and in order to make those happen, the back account needs a bit of a kick start again. After a less than fruitful job search, two weeks ago I did some in person chatted and landed the both of us a gig working together 1 kilometer from my maternal grandmothers house in Wolfville.
Last Tuesday we were shown a few tricks of the trade to avoid bruising; don’t grab hold of the fruit too hard, twist the stem upwards gently, keep you bag comfortably in front of you, high enough so that you can reach the bottom and when the bag is full, lean over the bin and gently release the bottom of the bag, allowing the apples to roll. Call me ignorant, but I never fully appreciated the effort and physical labour that goes into harvesting apples
I never realized how little I knew about the processes behind my favourite farm markets. Sure, I was always an advocate for shopping locally for in-season produce as much as possible, but in my past two weeks on the farm, I have really come to a great understanding of the significance of supporting local businesses and appreciating the beauty of what’s created in our own back yard. If I didn’t realize how much work went into picking them apples, then it won’t come as a surprise that I was also clueless regarding the efforts of processing and packing the bloomin’ things.
We’re at the peak of the season, with different varieties coming on all the time. I’ve learned so much about apples in the past two weeks, so much that I didn’t even realize there was to learn!
At first the process and machinery were all quite novel. I was like a little kid, mesmerised by the journey the apple took from the tree to the consumer, I even took photos of the whole process to share with you. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll already have seen these
The bin of apples we’ve picked gets tipped upright, to allow the apples to feed out slowly. They pass down the line, over a series of soft spinning brushes. which give them that “eat me” shine.
Once they’ve been brushed and polished, they are each placed into their own individual cup, and based on their weight will be delicately placed onto the next moving conveyor belt. From the weight sizing line, the apples are rolled onto another conveyor belt, which goes in two directions. The apples move along past us as we stand stationary, packing them into boxes for the large singles, and bag them into 10lb, 5lb or 3lb bags.
The conveyor belt is stopped once it is full, and carefully inspected. Attention to detail is required, as you scan to find any blemishes or apples that may be too green. There’s a high standard of quality, and each apple is hand picked from the belt and placed into the bags.
The bags are weighed and packed just slightly over 3lbs, 5lbs, or 10lbs. A very high-tech scale is used to match up.
We also pack the smaller apples into fancy 3L baskets. My head spun after seeing so many apples in one day, but it’s quite interesting being that much more aware of the behind the scenes action for when I go shopping in future.
We learned the ropes quite quickly, sorting and grading the reddest and the biggest apples. I was pretty chuffed to be able to be a part of each stage of the apples journey.
Thom and I decided when that we were willing to do whatever jobs needed doing, to be as useful as possible. Last Monday morning that involved picking 3 greenhouses full of red peppers (capsicum). I thought picking apples was painful, bending and stretching, bearing all that weight on my shoulders, walking around like a heavily pregnant woman about to pop. I met a whole new world of pain, as every back muscle ached – I’d stand up to stretch myself out the other way, while carrying pails of peppers the length of the greenhouse.
After completing the first greenhouse, I thought that 9 crates was a lot. 3 hours of being bent over at the waist, with detective eyes searching out any hideaways under the leaves, we ended up with 2 palettes (over 36 crates!) full of red peppers! As sore as I may be, I was still oddly satisfied to have completed such an unsuspected task.
There were already some peppers left over in the chiller too. Our next job was sort through and organize the peppers into groups: the biggest market perfect-os, deformos (seconds that were fine but just a little small or odd shaped) and rotskis – any that had a blemish or signs of age which would be sent to the compost. So long as the crates are stacked at waist height this job is great – I have come to loathe repeated /extended bending and avoid it at all costs.
The peppers stored in the chiller were like little iceblocks – luckily I had a pair of mittens in the car, and it made handling those little suckers so much more pleasant. Can you spot the perfect peppers ?
Grateful for the Experience
Although it’s just a minimum wage seasonal job, a job is a job and it feels great to be working towards a goal that I’m really excited for and have been for a long time. I didn’t expect to be so happy to be a part of a local farm market, but like I said to Thom and my family, I would so much rather be involved with providing the community with locally grown healthy produce, than say, flipping burgers and serving up who-knows-what’s-actually-in-this-McBurger. But if worse comes to worse, I would still ask if you want fries with that in order to achieve more travel dreams.
But working on the farm, we kind of get to set our own hours. We get asked if we’re working tomorrow, what time we’ll be in, what time we plan to take lunch and when we’re leaving for the day. Obviously we’re told what needs doing next, but other than that we’re pretty much left to fend for ourselves. For me, it’s nice to work amongst nature. It’s definitely a different pace and experience than teaching, and the time out and doing something different has definitely reminded me/made me realised how much I truly did/do love being a teacher. When the time is right, I’ll return to the classroom with a fresh new perspective on the job that I’ve wanted since I was a child. Until then, I’ll pick and pack those apples those apples and peppers like the best damn farm hand they’ve ever seen and make the most of every minute of it. This is the view from ‘my office’, after all.