Apple Picking on the Apple Isle

Our latest encounter with the overall-wearing magicians they call “mechanics” had left us (well, me) feeling somewhat vulnerable in the pocket region, and after a day in pretty Hobart Hailee assented to driving south, into apple country, to look for work.

We left the Mount Wellington hut on Tuesday morning, thinking we’d hopefully find something by the following Monday. By Tuesday night we had two job offers to consider, both of which were in the town of Cygnet, and both of which started at 7:30 the next morning. We nixed the strawberry picking option because, according to the manager’s wife, strawberry picking “feels like you’re dying.” She said this without a hint of mirth.

So apple picking it was! Next, we needed to find a place to sleep. The Cygnet Holiday Park was packed with a United Nations of pickers and a sprinkling of confused grey nomads. It was wedged between a road and a little river, and for a patch of grass they charged $10 per night, per person, and $1 for a five-minute shower. Robert the caretaker seemed almost hysterical when he insisted that “You won’t find anything cheaper in all Tassie.”

We baulked at that option and consulted the Camps Australia Wide book. It started to rain. We drove half an hour south, to a forlorn campground facing Bruny Island, which was copping the full fury of the weather. We drove back to Cygnet. We followed every dirt road out of town, plagued by “NO CAMPING” signs. We phoned a nearby backpacker’s hostel, but the council (at the behest, I suspect, of the Cygnet Holiday Park) had bullied them out of accepting campers some time ago. Our only option was $20 a night for a patch of grass.

Life in the Caravan Park

We squeezed into a space at the base of a small rise, just below the bathrooms and camp kitchen. Steve is a rattling camper wagon, less comfortable than a grey nomad’s RV or a hippy family’s tepee (both of which were pitched nearby), but a good deal more luxurious than the flimsy tents in which our fellow apple pickers lived. This, our newness to fruit picking and Hailee and I’s natural tendency towards quiet and solitude made us outsiders in the picker community. We were nodded to on the way to the showers, but never invited into the many-accented conversations about Australian taxation policy, or the virtues of one orchard over another, or to share our own bush doof stories, and this suited us fine. However, our spot below the kitchen put us right in the heart of the park’s social life. We were surrounded by people yet almost invisible, and the various dramas and triumphs among the picker community became our nightly entertainment.

cygnet tasmania

First discovered by the French, who make two attempts at recolonisation each year around apple and cherry picking season. Source: ontheconvicttrail.blogspot.com

The pickers were a motley assortment of dreadlocked Frenchmen, bragging Canadians and a large group of Italians who, typically, lent a certain elegance and style to the mud-spattered and generally downtrodden look of the Tasmanian apple picker.

There was a Quebecois who wore long hair and tattered clothes, and casually refused to wear shoes in near-freezing temperatures because, one can only presume, he was better than the rest of us. He would gather a small group of admirers around him each evening, and talk about “facing the darkness” and “delving into my soul” to spellbound men and bored women. Hailee and I eavesdropped on these conversations as we cooked dinner, rolling our eyes and stifling sniggers.

One morning, a young Italian couple had a very public falling out. She threw her arms about and plead for forgiveness, while he stormed off in the direction of the pub. “I suck!” she cried in English. That night, he was seen making his melancholy way through the kitchen, dishing out hugs and promises of a couch to anyone who found themselves in Genoa next summer. He called everyone brother and sister, and many a bottom lip trembled as he finally trudged off towards the road back to Hobart. I relayed this news to Hailee when I returned from the bathroom, and we exchanged sombre nods.

Jonny was an older Australian picker in soiled tie-dye and a white pony tail, and he was the park’s media mogul. Apart from his old Tarago, his most prized possession was a glowing external hard drive. If you were running low on TV shows, movies or miniseries, Johnny was the man to see. He would sit young pickers down of an evening and spend hours on lengthy synopses for each of the thousands of pirated series and movies on his hard drive. Hailee and I watched the pickers’ initial excitement (new shows!) turn into a slow recognition of their predicament, their feeble attempts to extricate themselves and salvage their evening. And we chuckled as we ambled towards our warm tent, while Johnny launched into an analysis of the third season of Stargate SG-1.

These were just a few of my favourites. There were also young men from the mainland who seemed desperate to fulfil their stereotype around all these foreigners, and were often heard loudly recounting tales of their smelliest poos or how many times they’d vomited on their sister. Lloyd was a genial New Zealander who had time for everyone, and a little to spare to sit outside the kitchen and sing reggae songs on his guitar. And a pair of perpetually scowling French girls seemed briefly happy when they bought an ancient Pajero from a young couple, also French. They actually smiled as the previous owner explained how to perform “le changement d’huile” or pointed out the location of the “roue de secours.” Soon the transaction was over, and it was now the girls who rumbled the Pajero around Cygnet’s damp streets. After a brief spell of excitement, the scowls reappeared and the universe was normal once more.

Yeah, Yeah. So What About the Apples?

Sorry, I’ve been getting to that.

Apple picking was not as romantic as it sounds, but at least it beat the production line work we were doing at the tomato farm in January. Working outside (in the rain or beating sun) was a fun alternative to a packing plant or an office, and being paid based on how many apples we picked was strangely satisfying – despite how little we were making.

Pickers at our orchard received $40 per crate, and the supervisors kept a tally for us to sign off on at day’s end. Hailee and I filled the same crates and split the spoils, because we’re socialists.

apple picking tasmania

I didn’t take any photos at Cygnet, so I’m stealing from the internet for this post. This one comes from the Sydney Morning Herald.

The crates were much bigger than we had expected, and we had expected them to be pretty big. Other orchards offer up to $45 per crate, but the supervisors (“gaffers” in picker’s lingo) swore those were either bigger crates, or you could only pick certain colours to fill them. Because of the transient nature of the work – pickers descend in the season, disappear when the work dries up – each farm seemed desperate to convince its workers that they were getting the best deal.

Our orchard (which I won’t name) was not very well-organized, but the work was simple, even enjoyable when the weather was good. You wear a sort of sack that hangs down your front from the shoulders. You fill it with apples that are picked not by yanking, but by lifting and rotating in a surprisingly gentle action. You’re supposed to use your palms, because fingertips will bruise the apple. Having separated the apple from the tree, you place – not drop – the apple into your bag. You try not to yank off too many “buds” – the part of the branch that the stem is attached to – as this is where next season’s apples will grow from. The gaffers will chastise you if they find too many buds littering your row.

Apple-picking-square

Fingertips, boooo!! Source: 7ad.com.au

So you pick everything you can reach, being careful to throw all your snapped buds into the row of the Frenchman next to you, and then you grab your ladder. You climb it and find a dazzling wonderland of apples up there, rich crispy chunks of deliciousness. We picked galas and the bruise-prone golden delicious. You work your way from the top of the tree down, being careful not to bump your bag on the ladder, or snap too many branches, or slip and fall humiliatingly into the mud below. Once your bag is full, you unhook a sort of latch on its bottom and let them gently tumble into your crate, secretly trying to figure out if you’re going faster than your partner. Don’t tell her I said this, but judging by the frequency of her visits to the crate, and the number of compliments she received from the gaffers, I think Hailee was a much better picker than me.

apple-picking-bag

Source: picktheworld.org

Apple picking was a great cultural experience for Hailee, mainly because it gave her a proper introduction to the Great Australian Yarn. For non-Australian readers, the Yarn is a wonderful, sometimes maddening and deeply integral element of Australian culture. It basically comes down to this: every social interaction, no matter how fleeting or inconsequential, must be accompanied with a bit of a chat about nothing in particular. Popular topics include the weather, the function or malfunction of various engines, the “footy” (football) and fishing. I have never been an expert on any of these, and so the Yarn has always made me feel a little anxious, like an imposter pretending to be an Australian man.

I had thought of the Yarn as a bit of a throwback, a disappearing custom only practised in small towns by old people with nothing better to do. You will not have many Yarns in inner Sydney or Melbourne these days – city life is too fast paced, and there are far too many faces to stop and have a Yarn with every clerk and cashier. However, I am pleased to report that the Yarn is still alive and well – thriving, even – on the Apple Isle.

Consider, for example, the apple orchard. An apple farm can live or die based on speed. Orchards need to be picked quickly, or the crop may be lost to weather damage. Tractor drivers must hurry to keep crates moving, or the pickers will become agitated. And of course, pickers sink or swim depending on how fast they can fill the crates.

Yet even here, amid the frantic rush of picking season, Tasmanians will still find time to prop a foot up on a crate, light a ciggie, and have a Yarn.

“How many apples d’you get in a bag?” shouted Ben, our tractor driver, on one visit.

“No idea,” replied Hailee. “Why?”

Ben turned his key and the tractor’s engine died, presumably to facilitate the coming Yarn.

“Bloke six rows that way tells me it’s taking him 104 apples to fill a bag,” he says, leaning back in his seat. “He goes ‘This is bullshit. Should only take 52.’” He invited us to share in his bafflement.

“I said, ‘Mate, if you spent more times picking apples and less time counting ‘em, maybe you’d make a little money.’”

Ben was a really nice guy to work with, and he was under a lot of pressure to keep large numbers of pickers happy and moving with a single tractor. But in the five minutes that followed, we started to realise why we hadn’t seen him for several hours. Eventually he backed away down the row, and started up the one beside us.

“How many apples d’you get in a bag?” we heard him say.

The End of Apple Picking

In the end, we only lasted a week. For us, filling five crates in a day (netting $200 between us, before tax) was an achievement – albeit an exhausting one. It was demoralising to hear a seasoned Spanish couple admit that they generally filled nine in a day, more if it was good-sized fruit. One day, communication from the orchard completely broke down, and we and several other pickers spent more time trying to figure out where we should be working than actually picking apples.

The last straw came from the caravan park. Caretaker Robert neglected to mention the “up front” part of their “seventh night is free if you pay up front” policy, and we had a pretty nasty falling out over this. The disputed $20 wasn’t really the point, but he refused to admit his mistake. I hate confrontation but in this case I believed we had a valid point. The longer we squeezed him, however, the more irrational Robert became until at las he threatened to throw us out and started off towards the police station across the road.

We made sure it was nice and late before we trudged into the rain to toss our money through his trailer door, and in the meantime we sat in the kitchen, inventing extravagant revenges. Meanwhile, one of the Australians had produced a couple of cakes for a young French picker’s birthday. We took a break from our plotting and sat at the edge of the group, quietly singing “Happy Birthday” along with everyone else.

Then, as we returned to our dinner, a friend of the birthday girl approached and offered us two slices of cake. We accepted, and she gave us a smile and a nod, and returned to her friends.

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