Why stay in Montreal and make money when you could go to B.C., be broke, party with hippies, and hate your job? Well that is exactly what Plant writer Maya Malkin did and here is a firsthand account of her experience.
It’s summertime, and the living isn’t so easy for a cherry picker in British Columbia. After a whole summer of living in a tent, surviving off the cheapest food I could afford at the Safeway supermarket, and working brutal hours, I came home broke.
After awhile, it became easier to adapt to the living situation. We were a minute walk away from a small sandy beach, a convenience store run by very polite people, and a take-out diner, “I had so much fun, like staying on the beach for four hours,” Roubert laughed. Also, the air in British Columbia was so crisp, and you could get lost in the sunny sky, and the clear water. The mountainous range never seemed to end, and you could still see snow at the very tips of them. “It was a great escape from the city life we all knew and loved,” Rice-Gossage said.
It was all good fun but after a while, the pay became the biggest issue for the workers, because it was such a bad season. There were barely any cherries on the trees, it could take up to 18 trees to pick three buckets. Pickers were paid $4.50 for a 20-pound bucket of picked cherries. The company makes approximately $3 to $5 per pound of cherries.
“The problem with the pay was that it was very one sided. To make any kind of money you had to be picking at least 25 buckets a day, but with the trees we had, that was impossible for me. You had to be real good to make any cash,” said Rice-Gossage.
Filling a bucket was no easy task; it required climbing a nine-foot ladder to reach the very tops of the cherry trees. When half your body is dangling off the side of the ladder, 12 feet off the ground, it is hard to keep focused. Also, because it was such a horrible season it was difficult to get better at the job if you were new to it.
“I never really felt like I was able to reach my full potential, I grew in bucket counts every day, until I reached my record of 15 buckets. I had amazing trees that day, on a bad day. Pretty much the rest of the season, I was going as low as five buckets a day, which is $20 in seven hours, which is like less than three bucks an hour, obviously I was broke,” Rice-Gossage added.
The work was never steady. If it rained, we could not work for two days because they had to spray the pesticides, and then wait a day until it was safe for the pickers. If the factories could not take any more cherries, we would get off work at 9 a.m. instead of 12 p.m. If we finished an orchard, we would have a couple days off. The income was always inconsistent.
Most of the money made by pickers went straight to buying food. “I was spending more than I was making,” said Kathryn DeMarco, 23, a graduate from Fanshawe College, in London, Ontario. In the shack, there were four questionable fridges and numerous shelves to store food. However, leaving your food there was at your own risk. I cannot count how many times I would find my box of Frosted Flakes devoured the day after I bought them. You had to keep your food in your tent. People stole left and right, even a MacBook Pro was stolen.
Most people were not thieves, however. The majority of the people were from all around the world, and very interesting “I met great people who all had great stories to share. Most of the people you meet at places like that are the people you might consider to be very free spirited and have a great sense of adventure,” said Roubert.
“Some of the most diverse people intellectually that I’ve ever come across. Half of them were stoners. People from Germany, Australia, France, and all over Canada. It was cool to see how everybody’s different lives were thrown together,” Rice-Gossage said.
They also loved to party and there was an onsite weed dealer and MDMA dealer. I remember at the end of one party night when everyone was falling over each other and slurring their words, the whole camp was repeatedly chanting, “PARTY EVERY DAY CAUSE THERE AIN’T NO WORK!” The next day two people fell asleep in the orchard.