In a sea of citrus
The best part about picking oranges is the smell. From the moment you rustle the dark green leaves and pluck the first fruit, a light, fresh citrus scent fills the air.
As it turned out, that was probably the highlight of our highly unglamorous week picking citrus in the never-ending groves of Renmark, South Australia. A swath of country here, called the Riverland region, is entirely made up of rows upon rows of citrus and grapes, and it seems that half the population is transient pickers. Once again, a quick glance at the National Harvest Guide and an appearance at the employment office was all it took to land a job. In fact, our recruiter informed us that we could pick citrus seven days a week for the next seven months if we wanted. Thanks, but no thanks.
It took the better part of the first day to master the twisting and snapping motion required to cleanly part an orange from its stem. After a few hours we were filling bins in 45 minutes and left feeling quite optimistic about our earning potential for the week. But it was not meant to be. On Tuesday, everyone was lead out to Patch 41, where we were instructed to strip the tall, thorny, under-pruned trees of their remaining oranges. The trees had been select picked earlier in the week, meaning all of their large, plump, eye-level fruit was gone, leaving us to reach through thorns and deadwood to harvest the stragglers. It was terrible, and we before long hated Patch 41 with our whole hearts.
By the second day, we had yet to learn any of our picking compatriots’ names, as it’s hard to make friends when you have your head in an orange tree. However, we did already have clever nicknames for most of them:
- Three jolly and well-traveled Belgians (The Belgian Troupe).
- A rambling, rough looking fellow (The Crusticle, Ol’ Crusters, or Crusty for short) who turned out to be quite harmless. In fact, we grew a little fond of the guy.
- A funny stout/tall and skinny duo (Boggis & Bean), who were laughably slow pickers and unfortunately lacked a short friend whom we could have dubbed Bunce.
- An Aboriginal guy (The Zen Master) who told tall tales of fruit picking heroics and looked like he could fill bins faster than us in his sleep.
- Our favorite was some sort of farm manager/supervisor who we never came up with a name for but looked a bit like this:
Others included a lone Irishman, a rude German who fortunately quit, and a guy from China who picked mandarins as fast of the both of us together. Countless more appeared and disappeared over the course of the week, as it seems the average turnover time for orange pickers is around 48 hours.
All this was overseen by a mob of Indian contractors. When we asked a questions (like, “how are we getting paid?”) one person would go to another, who would ask yet another, who would usually ask a surly man in Hindi, and the info would then be translated back to us. Needless to say, we took everything we were told with skepticism. By Friday we estimated a $200 range that our wages could fall into, depending on tax withholdings and getting scammed by various amounts.
Midway through the week, we abandoned our post at our manicured caravan park and moved down to a local campsite called Plush’s Bend. The whole area had been flooded recently and was scattered with dead trees, giving it the look of an abandoned hazardous waste dump. But, it was free, and we set up our tent in a dirt patch where we could wave at Ol’ Crusters in his semi-permanent campsite across a stagnant backwater. Home sweet home!
It was only the beginning of a slow slide into a life of careless squalor and destitution. We hung out and drank box wine in the shopping plaza parking lot, didn’t shower for three days, and Nate’s torn work gloves made him look more and more like someone you shouldn’t let your children anywhere near.
Luckily, on the brink of quitting and cutting out losses, we all moved into the much more pleasant and profitable mandarin orchards on Thursday, where bins fill up painfully slow but net a lot more money. Two long but painless days there made the whole endeavor worth it, and then it was time to get paid. Fittingly, we were informed this would take place in a McDonald’s parking lot, where we were handed a blank envelope full of cash. Awesome.
Really, it was the full migrant worker experience. We got a small taste of how countless laborers in our home country must feel, being supervised by way too many people who speak another language and getting paid an undetermined amount which is probably less than it should be. Not to mention the hours of hard work. We have a new respect for the oranges we see in the grocery store… and for the few dozen in the back of our car. Success.