"I wanna hang a map of the world at my house. Then I wanna stick pins in the locations that I`ve traveled to.
...But first I have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won`t fall down."
-Mitch Hedberg

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Apple Picking

We already know that NYC is the greatest city on earth, so we came to New Zealand to experience a slower way of life and to get our hands dirty doing some good old fashioned manual labor. Our first (and subsequently last) stop on the NZ Harvest Trail was Motueka during apple season.

We were stoked to get a job, so our first day began with us waking before sunrise and blasting pump-up jams (*cough* Ke$ha) all the way to the orchard. We met our boss “Gonzo” (one cool Kiwi) and Bob the tractor driver (also awesome), and we began schlepping our ladders down the row of trees we had been assigned to. We were lucky to be working together because, other than the unpleasant visits from the owner, and the “You make my grandpa look like a speed demon” comments from Bob, there was little human interaction. We looked forward to Bob's friendly insults because it was our only source of entertainment - one time he asked Shawn if his last name was “Banana”, then just drove off laughing. I still don’t get the joke.

You’re probably thinking “So why was this job so bad? You guys just sound lazy.” Well, my friends, here are a few apple picking fun facts that we’ve compiled to help explain just how bad this job really was:
  • Each person’s bag can hold up to 130 apples.
  • It takes approx. 21 bags to fill 1 bin.
  • Therefore, approx. 2,730 apples fill 1 bin.
  • We were paid NZ$26 per bin, but we worked together so we each made NZ$13 per bin.
  • Therefore, we earned almost 1 penny for each apple picked. Almost 1 NZ penny. Right now that’s 7/10 of an American penny, or $0.007.
  • It took us about 2 hours to fill a bin – that's approx. 12 apples each per minute.
  • A skilled picker should fill a bin in 1 hour working alone - that's 45 apples per minute.
  • Our pathetic pace had us earning NZ$6.50/hour each (US$4.73). The current NZ minimum wage is NZ$12.50/hour. Fail.
  • On Day 1 we worked for 7 hours and filled 3 bins.
  • On Day 2 we worked for 9 hours and filled 3.75 bins.
  • On Day 3 we worked for 9 hours and filled 4.25 bins.
  • In total we filled 11 bins, for a grand total of…drumroll please…30,000 APPLES!!!
Here’s the sad part – despite picking 30,000 APPLES!!! in just three days, we were also 30,000 apples off-pace. To pick enough apples to earn minimum wage, we were supposed to have picked 60,000 apples in three days.

Now, add to that awesome paycheck the fact that you spend the whole day with 130 apples strapped to your chest, lugging around a 10 ft metal ladder (or almost falling off the top of it), while the summer sun beats down on your face and sandflies bite your neck. It’s the worst combination of back-breaking physical labor and mind-numbing monotomy.

The cherry on top is that the orchard owners have a very specific way that the apples must be picked and would storm down the rows yelling if they saw otherwise. You’re supposed to delicately use two hands to cup the apple, then tilt it up and twist. This technique prevents bruising, keeps the stem on, and ensures the trees stay in tact for next year. Quick tip for orchard owners – you want us to actually do that? It’s gonna cost you a lot more than $0.007.

There’s also a cryptic scale to determine whether an apple is ripe:
  • If it’s 60% “block red” and 40% green, pick it.
  • If it’s 100% red, but it’s “stripy red”, don’t pick it.
  • If it’s “stripy red” with a yellow tint (which, by the way, looks exactly like green), pick it.
I spent most of my time rotating apples going, “Hmm…is this 60% red…or just 55% red?…it seems to have a slight golden undertone that would indicate ripeness…or is that a hint of lime green that indicates non-ripeness…” Then I would remember how little they were paying us and just chuck it into my bag. Or eat it. The one good thing about apple picking is that you never go hungry.

Following the owner’s meticulous methods made it impossible to work quickly. If we treated the apples like precious flowers, we would get in trouble for working too slowly. If we sped up, we got yelled at for our bins being too green and for leaving too many branches on the ground. It’s a lose-lose situation with fear being the only motivation. The most valuable lesson that Bob the tractor driver taught us was to spend five minutes rotating the apples on the top row of our bin so the red side was up and the green side was hidden. Genius.

The 30,000 apples we picked were shipped to the US, so if you’re ever at the grocery store and come across Royal Gala apples from New Zealand that are bruised and half green, you’re welcome.

We decided after three days that we had learned more than we ever wanted to know about apples, and had gained a lasting appreciation for field workers and the power of human labor. So we quit.

We haven’t eaten a Royal Gala apple since.


  1. Carolyn
    Hi, It's the same the world over. I picked Oranges in Florida 30 yrs ago. Picked with friends for half a day ,decided to finish and the Boss said we couldn't. We hadn't earned enough to pay for the Picking Bags we "owned" but couldn't take with us!!!! Farm work sucks

  2. haha, sounds about right. our first night they made us take our bags home with us, which was awful for 2 reasons. First of all, it made our van smell like a sweaty horse and we sleep in there. But what was worse was that it meant we had to show up the next day, or else get charged for the cost of the bags!

  3. Hey guys I sent your blog to 2 different friends who will be freedom camping in NZ soon! I told them your blog is the bomb!

    PS It's Joan's bday today (in America)

  4. no, merridith, you're the bomb!

  5. HAHAHA...your storytelling cracks me up! And now I want an apple...