The nights have been warm and the apples’ red color isn't coming on.
Wilfred Edwards, mid 60’s, picked apples in the Hudson Valley before finding his way to Forrence Orchards 18 seasons ago. Like many here, Wilfred is a farmer back home. With his wife, five children, and a donkey, he grows bananas, peas, beans, and yams on two acres in the fertile Blue Mountains. His storied two decades picking apples shows not just in his cracked leathery hands but in his efficient and relentlessly steady picking technique. He is what Mason Forrence calls a “slugger,” a picker who digs in and picks hard all day regardless of the conditions. Before setting his eight-foot aluminum ladder to reach into the higher branches of a tree, he picks in a double figure eight pattern around the base of three trees at once, hardly moving his feet as he twists side to side. His economy of movement and experience set him apart. He’s four or five trees ahead of the other pickers in the crew, picking faster than men half his age. Youth has little if any advantage in the orchard. Technique and concentration carry the day.
“The U.S. government says this is unskilled labor, this is skilled labor,” says Mason as he comes to check in on the crew’s progress.
“Climate change has me worried, the days have been too warm.” Mason leans into a bin of Macs, turns the apples over in his hand, and shakes his head. Mason and Seth constantly juggle the variables in the weather, the condition of the fruit, chemical sprays, infestations, and manpower. Timing is everything, and the harvest window is only open a short time before the crop is lost.
“Learning the quality of the apples when you first start to pick is the difficult part.” Horace Cunningham is a tall, thin, soft-spoken 35-year-old man who has been picking at Forrence Orchards for four seasons. Back home he is a farmer and a cook at his own restaurant, Tear Drops. He grew up on his grandparents’ farm after losing his father and being separated from his mother as a child. He studied food and beverage before opening his own restaurant on the main drag in Albert Town, in what is known as Cockpit Country. He specializes in steamed fish, fried chicken, and festival dumplings. He was recruited into the H2A program but waited five years before he received a phone call to report for his medical exam at the Department of Labor/Agriculture in Kingston. While he picks apples for two months, an employee looks over his business back home.
The Forrences assess the harvest before requesting the number of men they’ll need for the season. There are 30 percent fewer men on the farm this year than last year, when there were over 200. There are no rookies this year, and only the most productive workers from the year before were invited back. The men are under contract until October 28th, and the clock is ticking to complete the harvest by then.