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A college student's endless summer picking fruit

The difficulty of finding American citizens who will do the kind of farm work generally left to migrant laborers is an old story. I would like to tell you about my experiences picking fruit and why many Americans will not do this job.

In the 1960s, California citrus was picked by itinerate Mexican farmworkers known as braceros. They lived in camps consisting of dorm-like buildings and a dining room, and they migrated with the crop: California in the summer for oranges, Washington state in the fall for apples, the Los Angeles flower market in winter. And they sent most of their earnings back to Mexico.

In 1965, California decided to replace some of the braceros with American college students. The first week would pay $1.25 per hour, a good wage then. Thereafter one would get paid the set rate per box of fruit. I was on a bus that went to a camp about a half mile outside of the town of Piru to pick oranges. Others went to lemon groves. Each room of the camp consisted of about eight army-type beds with loose springs and thin mattresses. They were not air conditioned. We were issued clippers and gloves.

In the orange groves we carried 18-foot ladders to a "set" of trees and thrust the ladder against the branches hoping it will hold. Then we climbed to the top and picked everything in reach on the way down, holding the orange with the left hand, clipping with the right, and dropping the fruit into a bag we wore around our shoulders. Four ladder placements were usually enough to clear a tree, and four trees completed your set.

The bottom of the bag, fastened with two latches, was opened to dump the oranges into a wooden box. The pay for each box varied according to the abundance and accessibility of the fruit and ranged from 28 to 32 cents per box. This price was agreed on between the grower and the Sunkist Cooperative packing house.

With the constant climbing, heat and dust, it was hard, dirty work. Every orange on the tree had to be picked. If we missed one, our foreman made us put the ladder back up to get it, even if we had to add another 6-foot extension on it.

Lunch usually consisted of a sort of stew with bones, fat and a little meat washed down with green Kool-Aid. We worked 9 ½ hours a day, and at the end of the day I would be so tired I would just lie on my bed and watch the flies until dinner time. The charge for meals and our room, about $14 per week, was taken out of our paychecks.

During the first week there was a fair amount of camaraderie among us newcomers. Two or three times a day we'd hear a crash as one fellow named Schmidt fell off the ladder into the tree. Someone once hid a smudge pot in the bottom of a box, a shameful thing that made us all look bad. At the end of the first week, 54 of the 60 of us who came to Piru went home — a 90 percent quit rate!

The remaining six of us stayed in the same room after that. There was no mingling with the braceros, who were distant and maybe a little disdainful of us. Once a busload of prisoners — a surly and frightening lot — was brought in to pick for a day, but they kept among themselves and were gone the next day. Even prisoners wouldn't pick oranges!

Many of the braceros could pick 100 boxes a day, and it was rumored that one of them could pick 200 — that represented good money in Mexico. I could pick about 50 and was happy at that. On the weekend the braceros would party on guacamole and beer with the Spanish radio station blaring. Next day the 55 gallon trash drum would be filled with Olympia beer cans.

During that summer as an orange picker my eyes were constantly bloodshot from the dust, and when I blew my nose mud would come out. But there was something satisfying about working hard and having something tangible to show for it. And we had all the oranges we could eat. But the state of California, to my knowledge, never again invited college students to pick fruit.

Charles Spivak, Cockeysville

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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