Pick-your-own fruit: migrant labor from the suburbs

Pick-your-own fruit may be just respectable fun for city folk, but it has become a respectable business for Bay State fruit growers. This fall apple growers all over the state expect hundreds of eager amateurs to descend on their orchards to pick more than 10 percent of the state's total apple crop.

Says George Porter of the Massachusetts Board of Food and Agriculture, ''The phenomenon really became a business in the late '60s when labor costs began to get out of hand. Since the fruit crops are picked by hand, they needed a way to offset the costs.

''Letting the customers pick the fruit was a happy solution because they have fun and the growers don't have to pay the high labor costs.

''There are drawbacks,'' Mr. Porter adds. ''Some crops adapt more easily than others. Berries, with small bushes, are less problematic than trees, where people can hurt themselves.

''Most of the apple U-picks now have dwarf trees to prevent accidents from people climbing around in the trees. But even with that, it requires a lot of supervision. Not all growers want to get involved in that.''

Franklyn Carlson of Carlson Orchard Inc. in Harvard, Mass., observes, ''We had one bad experience with people picking their own. But now we do it on a small, controlled basis and it works very well.''

Seventy percent of Carlson Orchard apples go into storage in contrast with an operation like Doe Orchards, also in Harvard, which has 60 acres devoted entirely to the pick-your-own operation.

Notes Pam Lawson of Doe Orchards, ''We've always had facilities for people to pick their own. About 15 years ago, we sold the buildings on the property, so we no longer had facilities for anything else. That's all we've had since then.'' Massachusetts law requires that fruit growers provide housing for migrant harvest laborers.

Giving a broader overview on the evolution of the pick-your-own fields, Guy Paris, also of the state Board of Food and Agriculture, comments, ''Most of the major fruit-growing states, like California and Florida, have large pools of harvest-following workers to do the back-breaking hand labor required. Even the largest commercial farms in California aren't mechanized.''

He observed that Massachusetts is just a little too far north and has too short a growing season to get a large flow of migrant workers coming up from Florida.

''Back in the '40s and '50s when labor was cheap and pretty available, there wasn't any problem,'' says Mr. Paris. ''Then, in the late '60s and early '70s, labor costs began to skyrocket. Farmers couldn't afford to pay hand laborers. But more serious, they couldn't find any more local laborers willing to do that kind of work.''

So what started out as a neighborly way to get rid of excess fruit in the field became a good way to do business. In fact, it has become the salvation of strawberry farmers all over Massachusetts, says Paris. ''Over 80 percent of last year's strawberry crop was harvested this way.''

Marina Andrews of Andrews Farm in Falmouth, Mass., a family strawberry farm that has been in business over 50 years, says, ''The younger generation doesn't have the stamina the older generation had. The older generation was prouder; they would rather work for what they have.

''Kids who could be picking for us would rather go on welfare. We've had kids say to us, 'Why should we do back-breaking work for a few dollars when we can do nothing and get paid just as much?' ''

Many of the fruit-producing farms are family operations and always have been. But, as one farmer wryly notes, ''How else could you get all the work done these days?''

Officials say this year's apple crop will be larger than last because of a longer growing season, but the apples may be smaller because of the unusual cold.

McIntosh apples are in season now; Cortlands and Delicious come in mid-September with the season drawing to a close in mid-October. A list of pick-your-own apples farms is available from the Department of Food and Agriculture upon request.

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