With a flick of his wrist, David Garcia plucked an apple off a high branch and gently laid it in his shoulder-slung picking bag. Then he plucked another yellow-green orb, then another and another, often using both wrists while teetering on a tall ladder. As he climbed down the rungs, his bag grew fuller until it held some 45 pounds of fruit.
Above him, a gray quilt of clouds blanketed the hilly contours of north-central Maryland. The leafy branches swayed in the breeze. Prime picking weather, thought Garcia. Cool and overcast meant less sweating as he raced up and down the 20-foot ladder, grabbing apple after apple.
It was Day One of the Golden Delicious harvest at Rinehart Orchards in Smithsburg. This week, some of those apples will arrive, washed and waxed, in produce aisles at Giant and Weiss supermarkets. Some will go to processors like Del Monte for apple sauce or baby food. (Still others, but only red kinds picked before or after the Goldens, will float to Panama in refrigerated containers.)
Without Garcia and his 19 fellow Mexican pickers, these apples might rot where they grow. Some people demonize Mexican laborers, documented or not, for stealing jobs and depressing wages. But in this rural swath of Washington County, orchard owners insist that they simply can't find local hires, even in a souring economy.
So they look south. And men like Garcia head north, willing to endure tedious, repetitious work and distance from family for wages that are good by Mexican standards. Since the Rinehart jobs are legal, pickers earn a government-set wage of $9.70 an hour, plus free housing - and they don't have to attempt a risky border crossing.
Garcia, a personable man of 29, says he twice crept through the Arizona desert and across the border. "I told my wife I don't want to do this again," he recalled. Two years ago, he heard through the grapevine that Rinehart needed pickers. He got a guest worker visa and rode the bus to Maryland.
Across the state this year, an estimated 2,000 seasonal workers are living in migrant labor camps licensed by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (That's a fraction of the total number of temporary workers statewide.) Most hail from Mexico, and many end up on Eastern Shore farms. But dozens trek to Smithsburg, a center of Maryland's apple and peach industry.
At Rinehart, the pickers swarmed over the orchards at 7 a.m. the first day, splitting into teams of 10. One took the ridge, the other the hillside. The tops of their ladders bobbed above the trees like giraffes snacking in the African bush. The bobbing ended as soon as a picker planted the ladder in the thick grass and scampered up to pick.
The men tackled the trees solo, toiling largely in silence except for the hum of tractors, the crickets' incessant racket and the occasional thud now and then of apples that escaped one's grasp. (You won't find those at the store; they go to processors.)
For some workers, the season began in March with pruning apple trees. In April they pruned peach trees. In May and June they thinned peach blooms to yield the best fruit. In July they collected dead wood from apple trees to heat the big metal packing house on Rinehart Road.
August meant peach picking. That's when a number of the men joined the crew. They journeyed five days at a cost of $700 or so. The orchard is supposed to reimburse them, but pickers say they've received just $165 thus far. J.D. Rinehart, the third generation to run the family orchard, said he always covers required expenses.
In any case, the pickers see little upside to complaining. In Mexico they'd be lucky to make $100 a week in construction, a quarter what they gross plucking apples. That said, picking is murder on the wrists and shoulders.
"You really work for it. Sometimes you don't want to be you," said Victor Hernandez, the 35-year-old crew leader. A long-time picker who gained permanent U.S. residency, he recruits laborers from two Mexican states, Guanajuato and Michoacan.
Once pickers reach Smithsburg, Hernandez takes them to the grocery store and laundromat and keeps an eye on them at their dorm-like housing, a Spartan place whose chief - and perhaps only - luxury seems to be the satellite dish that lets the men watch their beloved futbol.
This orchard dates to 1930 when D. Eldred Rinehart bought cheap land. It has stayed in the family. His son, John, who turns 82 on Tuesday, has run it for decades, and now his 45-year-old grandson, J.D., guides the operation with help from a few local supervisors.
"We wouldn't be able to do what we do without the men," said J.D. Rinehart. "Every piece of fruit has to be picked by hand."
Migrant laborers first worked for Rinehart in World War II. Back then it was Jamaicans and Haitians. Later, African-Americans from Florida came through as itinerant pickers. Since the 1980s, crews have been Mexican.
Rinehart is "a good operator," said Pamela Engle, head of community services at the state Health Department.
Both nationally and in Maryland, migrant labor camps have vocal critics. Daniela Dwyer, an attorney at Maryland Legal Aid, said the state's apple industry as a whole needs "massive reform." Wages are not always paid, she said, and housing conditions "in general do not meet code."
Ask David Garcia about picking apples and he says it's a good job except for his achy shoulders. The main drawback is living so far from his wife, Patricia, and two young sons.
"She's happy because she lives a little better; they got money, food, everything," he said with a pained smile. "But if I'm there, she's more happy because we're home together."