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Apple picking is a bizarre imitation of hard work

Our performative, Insta-worthy fall visits to orchards connect us to the outdoors, but disconnect us from labor.

One afternoon a few Octobers ago, I sat with a friend from Spain at a picnic table in an idyllic orchard 50 miles northwest of New York City.

As our significant others scoured the farm’s various other goods (jams, butters, donuts), the two of us admired the vast green-and-red foliage blanketing the hills in the distance. Beside us were net bags filled with the dozens of apples we had collected by hand from the property’s dozens of rows of trees — a ritual and scene familiar to many Americans. My friend looked at the bags and gestured toward the sprawl of plants behind him. As enjoyable as the day had been, he found the activity a little weird. “In Spain, we have a lot of fruit,” he said of Europe’s top produce exporter. “But we don’t have anything like this.”

Through fresh eyes, the whole thing indeed seemed strange. Quality apples are generally easily available at grocery stores, and it’s not as though such heavily romanticized traditions are built around gathering other foods. (To wit, a 2015 New Yorker cartoon depicted a family picking apples with the caption: “Maybe next time we can go mine our own salt.”)

Yet apple picking has become an essential, Instagram-friendly element of America’s ever-expanding autumn industrial complex, alongside cable-knit sweaters and pumpkin-spice-everything. It’s a central seasonal activity among many American farms’ so-called “agritourism” or “agritainment” offerings, including hayrides, corn mazes, and petting zoos; between 2012 and 2017, the total US agritourism industry grew 35 percent to nearly $950 million a year. Farms from Washington state to Anchorage to the New Mexican desert fringe and beyond allow visitors to pick their own apples, a practice that’s become the subject of annual online guides (What to wear! What to post! How to actually make use of your bounty!) and SNL parodies (“Come cosplay outdoorsiness with us”). Conan O’Brien once even took Mr. T.

The practice defies the prevailing shifts of modern American society and its endless push toward the efficient, frictionless, and remote. At a time when so many activities are mediated through devices, picking apples offers a tactile pastime without any pressure for productivity.

For city-dwellers like my Spanish friend and me, it offered an excuse to leave our hurried urban confines for an expansive environment where time seemed welcomely slow. We watched a parade of flat clouds float over the valley. We tracked a bristly lump of a caterpillar creeping its way between gourds. We ate cider donuts, petted some goats. The picking offered a purpose to our afternoon escape, but only a loose one. That none of us expected to actually eat all the apples we had tucked into our bags was beside the point. The fruit had already given us a day of deep breaths of clean air under an open sky.

Our experience that day, like those of thousands like us each year, obscures harsh truths about how most of the approximately 30 billion apples grown annually in the US get picked. At large, commercial orchards, picking is no stroll spent watching insects inch around. It is done rapidly and tactically — often with multiple fruits grasped with each swipe of the hand — at a grueling pace that can make for staggering scale. “If you are an experienced picker and you’re in good physical condition ... you should not pick less than 12 boxes in a day,” one professional told NPR in 2015 — a “box” being a container that holds about 1,000 pounds of fruit. Climbing and balancing upon ladders, even in adverse weather, can leave workers prone to spinal and musculoskeletal injuries, says Elizabeth Strater of United Farm Workers, as well as expose them to potentially dangerous pesticides.

Steve Scott, a migrant worker from Jamaica, reaches for a jonamac apple at Ricker Hill Orchard in Maine in this 2017 photo. Farm tourism as a leisure activity grew in popularity as America industrialized.
Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Workers pick gala apples at the Rasch Family Orchards farm in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2017. An estimated 30 billion apples are plucked in the US each year. Agritourism has brought in new revenue sources for farmers.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This reality contrasts sharply with Instagrammed images of leisurely orchard strolls on leafy, sun-kissed weekends. Many professional apple pickers are migrant workers, often from outside the US. A substantial share are brought in through H-2A visa programs. According to the Atlantic, Washington state — the nation’s leader in apple production — increased its use of such workers by 1,600 percent between 2006 and 2016.

For decades, Northeastern orchards, too, have relied on seasonal laborers from Jamaica. Though many of these workers earn more money than at home, the Southern Poverty Law Center has likened guest worker programs such as H-2A to a modern form of slavery. Workers required to remain at their jobs to remain in the country can be without recourse or leverage when enduring harassment and other forms of mistreatment. Undocumented workers, whose immigration status is even more tenuous, have even less standing.

“The apex labor issue on any farm in the US right now is immigration,” says Strater. “Any worker that is undocumented or living in a mixed-status community is that much more likely to be exploited.”

All the while, apple pickers wrestle with problems common to even US-born workers, such as compensation. A 1990s dispute over pay in Washington grew so dire that the United Farm Workers and the Teamsters — once heated rivals — considered organizing the industry jointly. (The unions’ union did not come to fruition.)

These issues add a special absurdity to the optics of tourists paying to do labor for which professionals are so meagerly paid. Over the last 150 years, however, a gap has been forged between the apple’s gathering and its consumption. The ways America picks its most popular fruit, and why, are a product of changes in where Americans live, how we farm, how we have fun, and how we see — and perform as — ourselves.

An apple tree with apple on it, seen from inside the canopy.
In the early 1900s, there were around 14,000 varieties of American apples; industrialization quickly changed that.
Creative Touch Imaging/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Like pigs, Malus pumila arrived in North America by boat in the middle of the last millennium and promptly ran wild. The species from which all of today’s commonly consumed apples descend, it was first domesticated in Kazakhstan and eventually came to Europe by trade. Its seeds were among the many that early European colonists brought to Virginia and New England in hopes they might take hold. “It was kind of a crapshoot,” says John Bunker, an apple historian based in Maine.

The pumila apples, much like the four native North American species often lumped together as “crabapples,” thrived in their new environs. Soon, the continent was developing thousands of its own varieties, like the Newtown Pippin, so beloved by Thomas Jefferson that he requested James Madison ship “a few barrels” to Paris during his time there in the 1780s. The next century birthed an American apple legend in John Chapman, a ragtag, enterprising preacher who planted small orchards on Midwestern land in order to stake a claim to it, then sold the plots to settlers. Chapman’s efforts, often distorted, later enshrined him in the young country’s lore as Johnny Appleseed.

Chapman’s orchard gambit succeeded thanks to the popularity of cider, the preeminent alcoholic beverage of the United States at the time. Easily made and in some cases safer to drink than water, cider was drunk prodigiously and widely. (Michael Pollan has described Chapman as “an American Dionysus ... bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.”) Meanwhile, imported traditions and local practicality were making apples a staple component of American diets through pies, preserves, and other dishes. It became a staple, too, of the country’s burgeoning cultural identity. Fairs featured apples in contests. Harvests became occasions for local celebration. Thoreau, in a lengthy treatise, anointed them “the noblest of fruits.” This agricultural alien came to be seen as inseparable from its new land. Emerson declared apples “our national fruit,” gushing that “the American sun paints itself in these glowing balls.”

But the Industrial Revolution began distancing Americans from their apples. The fruits’ region-specific diversity — the USDA once cataloged around 14,000 American varieties — consolidated as railway shipping allowed growers to sell to far-flung areas, and national standards often replaced local stocks. The shift toward industrialized, urban economies pulled most Americans away from farms and orchards altogether. By the late 1800s, historian Dona Brown writes in Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century, many were so removed from the rural settings that had once defined American life that they began venturing to them for weekend and summer getaways. Such tourists, Brown writes, “were in a position, perhaps for the first time, of being able to envision the countryside as a playground, rather than as a mass of conflicting obligations, restraints, and memories.”

By the middle of the 20th century, orchards began welcoming visitors for other reasons. World War II-era labor shortages inspired growers to solicit volunteer picking help from nearby families, former Girl Scouts, and professional baseball teams. Operations also sometimes invited locals to help scoop up their scattered remaining crop at the end of harvest season. Enterprising outfits noticed their guests’ joy and recognized an opportunity to charge for the pleasure; others, facing further worker shortages in the 1960s, capitalized on the same appeal as old New England farm tourism for a new way to convert their crops to cash. The so-called “U-pick” sector was born. Soon apple-picking season became such a public event that major newspaper headlines regularly alerted readers to its arrival.

For many smaller growers, the sector became a lifeline. Industry consolidation has made it harder to compete with massive producers’ economies of scale, thinning the margins on wholesaling to stores and distributors. Direct, on-site sales to visitors allowed orchards to restore their margins while saving on labor and shipping costs. It also lured an audience for other farm products and attractions that could boost the bottom line.

“The wholesale was a lot of work without a very good return,” says Bill Dodd, a former Apple Grower of the Year, whose Hillcrest Orchards in Ohio began offering U-pick in 1997 and pivoted fully to the model within a decade. “This was still a lot of work, but the return was much more viable.” In retrospect, Dodd says he can see how he witnessed the demand for agritourism grow in his own Midwestern life. “When I was a kid, everyone had a grandparent or an uncle or some family member that was still farming, to some degree, so they had a family farm to go to,” he said. “Fast-forward 35, 40 years, most of the small farms are gone. They’ve been gobbled up by bigger ones. People just don’t have that option. They’ve gotten pretty far removed from their food source.”

America’s embrace of apple picking may have been aided by its accelerated promotion of autumn as what Jezebel’s Hazel Cills, in “How America Invented the White Woman Who Just Loves Fall,” described as “a season for the nation to collectively get nostalgic for its own beginnings.” Twentieth-century cultural arbiters from Norman Rockwell to Martha Stewart helped fashion the season’s trappings into a celebrated aesthetic of rustic simplicity. Activities like apple picking, Cills wrote, allow “white-collar city dwellers to play-act a pastoral fantasy.” (As Cills notes, much of this aesthetic is rooted in a nostalgia for the whiteness of a certain era.)

Visitors wearing protective masks pick apples at Owen Orchards in Weedsport, New York, in September 2020. Amid the pandemic, apple picking became a hot fall activity — thanks to being outdoors, mostly socially distant, and highly Instagrammable.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the social media era, this phenomenon has grown common enough to inspire tropes such as Christian girl autumn, Mr. Autumn Man, and “Fall is my Whole Personality!” sweatshirts. For people looking for fresh, relevant environs to showcase themselves, seasonal settings like apple picking can offer a solution with additional benefits.

“Influencers have to toe this line between aspirational and relatable,” says Cornell professor Brooke Erin Duffy, who studies social media and promotional culture. “Apple picking and these other rustic activities fit very neatly into this. It’s a beautiful, stage-worthy backdrop and always looks fun, but they’re not at the five-star restaurant or drinking fancy champagne or whatever it may be. A key part of it is that it straddles various class positions.”

The resulting images, from influencers and civilians alike, have developed a set of curated cliches: the family pose on bales of hay, the pumpkin-patch kiss, the apple picker contemplating their next pluck. Like many of the pictures posted online, these may lack originality, but they can serve to connect us to the social whole.

“It’s not like you go and are like, ‘I’m gonna emulate these photos,’” Duffy says. “But they become part of the popular imagination. It reaffirms this as an activity — as something to do.”

As many an Instagram scroller could tell you, picking apples seemed especially like something to do last fall. With most indoor recreation barred in large swaths of the US due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many saw outdoor entertainment as especially attractive. Dodd, the apple grower in Ohio, saw turnout to his orchard increase upward of 20 percent. “We had the best year we’ve ever had,” he says. “Ridiculous numbers.”

To some, the optics also lent themselves to the pandemic’s fraught social conditions. Duffy notes that, at a time when many influencers were scolded for risky behaviors amid a highly contagious viral outbreak, an orchard trip — outdoors and generally socially distant — allowed a poster to “perform for a public audience in a way that is less likely to generate critical blowback.” Also, she points out, day-tripping apple pickers were “not showcasing excessive levels of consumption and capital at a moment when the economy is collapsing.”

A tractor pulls a cart of tourists down a lane between apple orchards.
U-pick farms have turned apple picking — the hard work of farming, really — into a contrived exercise in nostalgia, complete with tractor rides, cider, and faux labor.
Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune via Getty Images

For those who pick for their living, the past year and a half also brought changes. Undocumented farm laborers were among those officially labeled “essential workers,” a status of predictable hollowness: a letter from the federal government permitting violations of stay-at-home orders, but no actual protections against deportation. In March, Congress passed the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would provide paths to legal residency for undocumented agricultural workers and establish new protections for those in the US on H-2A visas. (The bill has not yet been voted on by the Senate.)

Less hospitable have been longer-term global trends. The relentless heat waves caused by climate change have forced some harvesting to be done at night, when Strater, of United Farm Workers, says workers in the Pacific Northwest must contend with hazards like rattlesnakes. (Strater also says that some parents, lacking child care at such hours, bring their children to the fields.) Then there is the advent of apple-picking robots, which debuted stateside in 2019, drafting yet another battlefield in the escalating war between human labor — and the jobs it provides — and automation.

For most casual apple pickers, such developments are unlikely to be given much thought. But the further erosion of human connection to American apples aligns with the post-industrialization trends that helped cast apple picking as leisure in the first place. By now, the activity is firmly rooted in a culture where sensory, tactile “experiences” (and the performance thereof) seem positioned to retain or even grow their allure.

The social and personal forces that have for decades been propelling millions of Americans to spend their free time hand-selecting their own apples are not going anywhere. Animating it is the same simple idea that ultimately made my Spanish friend — a stranger to Martha Stewart, free of Americana’s contrived nostalgic pull — an easy apple-picking convert: Sometimes it’s just nice to get away from everything, and even better to come back with something sweet.

Dan Greene is a writer based in New York.

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