Pick red fruit — earn green bucks

The Old Hippie Bus Driver (aka, my wife, Stephanie) reports…that during the time that she drove the Back Creek, Capon Springs route in Hampshire County, she could almost see the field that was once the famous Rudolph strawberry patch. Back in the 1980s, we would go there with little children in tow for seasonal pick your own adventures. (If the grower of a pick your own operation should notice a drop in profits, he might consider weighing children on the way in and out and charging for the difference.) This was also the site of my short adventure in commercial strawberry picking.

A little history: In the early ‘70s when I first imposed myself upon the community of Capon Bridge, there were posters displayed in public areas that read “Pick Red Fruit — Earn Green Bucks.” The posters went on to say that strawberry pickers would be paid daily and all that one had to do to qualify was to find his or her way to a hopelessly quaint sounding little place called Loom. (I later learned that this was Smith Orchard — if you can get there before they sell out, you might still find some strawberries. Cherries are next if they didn’t freeze out.) All of this sounded so romantic in an old-fashioned roadside Americana sort of way — real Woody Guthrie stuff. I had always regretted not getting around to going to the strawberry patch at Loom.

Over a decade later in the late spring of 1985, 1 would have another chance at strawberry picking. Peaches had frozen out during an exceptionally cold winter and winter’s mischief was complimented by a late spring frost. More orchards grew peaches in those days when the climate was relatively stable and the weather at least halfway predictable. There is usually a welcome lull in orchard work between peach thinning and the first crop of peaches and early apples. If an orchard worker can schedule his plans around this time so as not to go totally broke, he or she can enjoy a period of fishing, swimming and completing various personal projects.

However, when the peaches would freeze, there would be no thinning to be done and this lull in employment would start much earlier and wouldn’t be as welcome. I was employed by Hidden Valley Orchard at the time and had run across just such a situation. News that the Rudolph Farm was looking for strawberry pickers reached me. I persuaded my friend and fellow Hidden Valley employee, the late Gary Heare, to ride along to the Rudolph farm and give strawberry picking a try.

The morning that I was to head over to the Rudolph’s farm, Gary was nowhere to be found. I was a little miffed, but, as it turned out, it was just as well. With a Cat Diesel hat soaked with insect repellent to ward off the gnats, I headed into the heat and endless rows. I’m large and don’t move so fast on an apple picking ladder but the Jamaican apple pickers had taught me the importance of fast hands. I was picking red fruit, being paid on a volume basis and I was indeed making green bucks. Farmer Rudolph said that he had never seen anything like it.

A few hours into the day, though, a problem arose. It seems that the fruit had sustained considerable damage from slugs. These shell-less snail-like creatures had bored their way into many of the berries, eating and excreting along the way. It was easy to pick out the heavily damaged fruit but, in order to be salable, all of the slug-damaged fruit would have to be culled. The picker was charged with this responsibility.

I tried this new arrangement for a couple of hours and it soon became evident that at this rate, I would have to eat what I picked to keep from starving. I reported these findings to Mr. Rudolph and we mutually agreed to abandon this experiment. He would then concentrate on the pick-your-own method of strawberry harvesting. News of my unemployment reached the community and I received enough calls to repair tractors and farm trucks to keep us going for a while. It would still be another four years before I would go into the equipment repair business full time.

A mild though life threatening cardiac event, which I have recovered from completely, caused me to be dismissed from Hidden Valley and the house that the job included. For some odd reason, my employer resisted my efforts to collect unemployment insurance compensation. However, after one short and oddly comical court hearing, I was able to receive benefits. With the help of some very kind and capable friends, we immediately went about building a cabin while camping on some “steep but cheap” property that we owned. We completed this task just as the rains that would cause the flood of 1985 began.

There have been some long days in the orchard, but, in general, I’ve always enjoyed the work and related experiences. In the Mid-Atlantic and New England, where I had worked orchards previously, the position of an orchard worker is a respected and prestigious profession. It’s a shame that the local attitude toward working at fruit growing clung for so long to the Depression-era idea that such work is for down and outers. Perhaps this is part of the reason that some past local growers have found the northern orchards to be such tough competitors. Attitudes may have changed over the years but anyone who still thinks that fruit growing is a drudgery fit only for the under-educated is tragically missing the point.

Stephanie no longer drives that particular route but she had given up trying to get a glimpse of the old strawberry field, anyway. She said that the mules in the pasture across the road proved to be much more interesting. So, time marches on and every little piece of ground has a wealth of stories hidden in its past, waiting to be told.

Telling these stories is a good little business — it doesn’t pay all that much but, unlike my other business, the overhead is almost non-existent. Still, I would like to get amongst the apple trees again — maybe I’ll pick come this fall (I’ve been saying that since 1986). A grower warned me as to what my first thought will be if ever I do again don a picking bucket. “How did that picking bucket get way out there?” Yes — maybe this Fall I’ll pick red fruit — and earn green bucks!

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