i A Time and a Place...: Pick 'em, Put 'em in a Bucket, Box 'em...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pick 'em, Put 'em in a Bucket, Box 'em...

I think this might be a cute post for some of you city folks!

This is a photo of Grandma dumping and sorting peaches from her picking bag into the lugs.

First, we get out of bed at 6:00 o’clock AM. Then we get dressed, making sure we wear a shirt with long sleeves and tight cuffs. (even though it will be 90 degrees outside today-I’ll explain later) When we leave, we usually wear headgear of some kind; the men, hats and the women, scarves or, as with Grandma, wide brimmed hats. We eat a good breakfast, usually biscuits and gravy with bacon or sausage, or hotcakes and sugar syrup with a cup of boiled coffee.

Then we drive to the orchard and get a picking bag or a bucket and ladder. The picking bag has a wide strap at the top that goes around the picker's neck so the bag hangs in front and it opens by flaps at the bottom so the picker can fill it up then open it over a box so the fruit rolls out into the box.
The bucket is about a four or five gallon and has a wire handle with a hook in the middle and the ladders are eight to twelve footers. The bags are always used by the grownups who have to climb the trees so they can have both hands free to climb, hold onto the ladder or limb and pick the fruit.

We are, of course, picking peaches. Most peaches we picked went to the Tri Valley Cannery right there in Modesto.

*As an aside, I remember when I used to walk to town from my house on South Conejo Avenue to go to the show or wherever else I went,- I walked usually North on Conejo to Monterey, West to Empire Avenue then North until I got to Yosemite Boulevard, then West toward town.

Yosemite Boulevard was the main street into Modesto on the East side of town. Tri Valley Cannery was on Yosemite Boulevard, just across Dry Creek. I always walked that way because there were always lugs of peaches, huge yellow clings, with ice all over them sitting alongside the road and I always grabbed a couple of them when I went by. No one ever said anything about me taking a couple. Maybe they never saw me do it. 'Yum'...

In 1942-43-44 and 45 there was nothing sweeter or more refreshing than a large, yellow ice cold cling peach to eat on a hot summer day! That was as good as chasing the ice truck and grabbing a chunk of ice off the tailgate to suck on in the 100 degree days! Better than getting a chunk of melted tar from the pavement to chew on! What a life!*

Much of the typical peach picking crews are made up of entire families. We take a set of trees, usually a square of four or six in two rows. We all pick on every tree and the kids and older women move around the trees to pick the bottoms while the men and younger women use the ladder to get the fruit from the top and inside the branches. In later years, trees have been “topped” as they are pruned to stay shorter and more open at the top so light can get in.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First we have to plant and grow the trees. Peach trees are set out into orchard plats, usually at least fifteen (?) feet apart to allow for growth. They are flooded to water and after they begin to grow, they have to be hoed to keep weeds out.
I’m a bit vague on this part of raising peaches because I was never involved in the “growing” part of peaches.

The peach trees blossom in the early spring and farmers have to watch them carefully and sometimes use smudge pots placed around and through the orchard to prevent frost from ruining the blossoms. After the buds turn to fruit, usually in the third or so year, the fruit should be thinned by removing some of it so the rest can get more nutrition and grow larger.

After the trees begin to produce fruit, in the winter they should be pruned; i.e., some limbs and ‘runners’ cut off to insure sunlight gets into the bottom part of the tree and the other limbs get adequate nutrition. And sometimes, if the fruit is very heavy on the limbs, that limb is propped up with a long, narrow board. ‘whew’
There’s more to growing but I know more about the “fun” part, that is, the picking.

OK, I got dressed, washed my hands and face in a wash pan of water that had been heated on the stove, ate breakfast and now we head to the peach orchard.

The roads aren’t very wide at most orchards so people usually drive in from one direction and out the other way. We find the boss and park under trees that have been picked already. (or just out of the way)Each family tries to be first there so they get the best trees, most heavily loaded with fruit.

We get our set of trees, usually four or six in two rows, pick up a bucket or a bag each and a couple of ladders for the family and the kids start on the bottom of the tree and the grownups climb the ladders and get the tops and middles.

We have to be careful to not pick fruit that is still green. The bosses will check the fruit to be sure it is all ripe enough. Our whole family has been educated as to how ripe and how big the fruit is to be harvested. We have a metal ring that we use to measure the fruit for size. If a peach goes through the ring, it’s too small to pick. That’s called, “ringing” it. ‘duh’

We pick the fruit into the bucket that has a metal handle with a hook on it so it can be hung on a limb or on our ladder or into the picking bag. When the bucket or bag is full, it is dumped into a peach box, called a ‘lug’. The weight of the lug of peaches is 45 pounds. The box is called a 45 pound lug. With a piece of chalk, we mark the end of the lug with our name or the number we were assigned. We prefer to pick clingstone peaches (clings) rather than freestones because we don’t need to be as careful with them since they’re mostly going to the cannery to be canned. ‘yummy!’
As a lug is filled, the boxes are stacked in rows, usually four or five high, along the road between each odd row. A man drives a truck along the road and checks each lug as he hands it up to another man who loads it onto a flatbed truck. Each box must be loaded right up to the top, checked for too green fruit and ringed for size, to be accepted. If he finds one not up all the way, he takes peaches out of another box to finish it and leaves that box to be re-filled. That short box is usually quickly filled so all lugs can be taken. It’s a fast operation. If he can't take it while he is here, we have to carry it to wherever he is when we finish the box.
We have a punch card the driver punches out to record how many boxes we have. At the end of the day or job, we go to the boss and he counts the punches in the card and pays us for them.

We usually pick until noon or so and try to stop for lunch about the same time as everyone else in that orchard. Everyone tries to finish his trees at the same time because we will then move on to another orchard together.

OK, we’ve picked, eaten lunch and picked some more. As anyone who has picked peaches well knows, peaches are covered with very fine stiff hairs called, “Peach Fuzz.” It is a hot day and at the end of the hot, sweaty day, we are covered with dirt and peach fuzz and itching like blazes. Now you can see why we wear long sleeve shirts with tight cuffs and a collar that can be buttoned tightly; to keep out the peach fuzz!

Now for the other fun part.
If we’re lucky, there is an irrigation canal nearby. If not, we find one that is running with water. When we do, all the kids and most of the grownups jump into the canal of ice cold water, clothes and all! Some folks even bring their soap bars with them. This is how we wash our clothes, bathe and get rid of the peach fuzz, all at the same time! It’s the best part of the day and, with any luck, our wet clothes will be dry by the time we get home.
Then, tomorrow’s another day and we do it all over again! Them was, indeed, the good old days and I sure miss them; but not too much! ‘Chuckle’



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