Cherry Filled Memories

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.

I heard about cherry picking in B.C. through a friend, who made $3,000 working there last summer. He said the hardest part was putting the ladder in the right place to reach the cherries, and after that, it was easy, therefore cherry picking sounded like something I could do. 

My boyfriend and I were hired online, via e-mail. The company we were working for is called Kalwoods Farms and is located in Oyama, the heart of the Okanagan Valley, B.C.

Originally, I wanted to go on this trip because I heard there was good money to be made, but I quickly realized Oyama had other things to offer, one of which was not money. 

It took me three days to get to British Columbia on the Greyhound, and by the third day, I stank of body odor, I had a thick layer of plaque on my teeth and my clothes were soggy. I was already getting the hang of things.

The Kalwoods Farms website made the living situation for the workers look like heaven, so when we walked down the long dirt road leading us to our camp site we were quite surprised at what we actually saw at the end of it. 

“The facilities were disgusting, the port-a-potties were rarely cleaned and always had questionable amount of toilet paper,” said Nelson Roubert, 19, a third year Mcgill student and friend I met picking. He’s right. The tiny communal shack had a green roof and a white peeling body. It was shared by approximately 70 other pickers and resembled a homeless shelter. The floors were covered in dirt and the only toilet stank of feces, dirt and weed.

“I felt like I was at a slave camp. All of us shoved into this little area and expected to work when needed,” said Henry Rice-Gossage, 19, an Arts and Culture Dawson graduate and now a full-time worker. The only grassy area we had was covered in tents. The one stove, with four stovetops, provided made our 4 a.m. wake-up call even more brutal. Every morning the kitchen was crammed with people trying to make a substantial meal for themselves to be able to last the workday.

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.

As Oyama grew duller, people got tired of partying, and the pickers were losing all their money, people started to leave early. “Every day on the beach for a month can get pretty repetitive. I mean, Oyama’s only a block long, what are we supposed to do with ourselves all day?” DeMarco asked. 

My boyfriend and I decided we did not want to take the bus back to Montreal, so we bought a $100 car off Craigslist, a baby blue 31-year-old Toyota Corona, that we named Perogie, and took a mini road trip across Canada. We spent every dollar we made cherry picking on getting home.

 “Overall I loved cherry picking but ironically I doubt I would do it again because there is a lack of income for what we do,” Roubert summed up.
“It was really worth it,” DeMarco said, “I liked how some days were very hard, and how on some days you really had to push yourself to keep going. I don’t know if I’ll go again, or if I would tell anyone to do it, but I don’t regret doing it at all.”

However, not everyone had an adventurous summer like Dylan Mclean, 18, a third semester Arts and Culture student, who stayed in Montreal and worked full time at American Apparel this summer. “I would’ve enjoyed getting out of town, but since I need the money and plan on going around Europe next summer, it was definitely worth it.” She gets paid $9.50 an hour. 

“Traveling always seems fun to me, it comes in handy to have a few good stories for the beginning of this semester since it seems to be a popular question amongst the teachers and students at Dawson. If one more person asks me what I did this summer and gives me that look of despair and decides to quickly change the subject … so help me God, I’ll have to start lying.”

One thing I will not have to do is lie about my summer. I have $0.23 in my bank account, a car that cannot pass the Quebec safety inspection, and sore fingers. I remember the day that my boyfriend said to me, “we’re not going to make any money, there’s no doubt about that, so we may as well just have fun,” and that is what I did. I have friends all over the world now, a good story to tell, and an amazing experience, which I will cherish forever.
If you are interested in fruit picking visit: http://www.bccherry.com/

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2 responses to “Cherry Filled Memories

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  2. This is vacancy on the beach that you paid a lot like a full week all include in South! This is the condition that you will see everywhere you go working outside and that there is a lot of work to do. You probably didn’t get enough information before your departure because every people that I know, that I met everywhere knew that! It’s not like living in city ! It’s living closer to the nature and in nature there is mud everywhere, etc. In fact, cherry picking is oftenly the first place that somebody who has never travel and who has his own idea,he built his own idea from the experiences of others, he believes that going to the cherry picking is a pure return to nature, that there is no need to force yourself and work hard to make money, that life is only to party and have fun, but this is not reality! Often, people who get tired or had abandoned this kind of awareness there. It is through experience that reveals itself and we can realize,etc. By experience through my travels, we totally lived and understood this differently. It is more than making money and partying. That’s life that you are left to yourself and that allows you to surpass yourself, to become better every day. This is another way to challenge and those who only celebrate, spend their money quickly realizes. There is a greater sense as saying that above the transcendence and also the encounter with oneself,etc.

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