There I was, in the dirt, on my hands and knees with the sun belting down on my shoulders, the heat magnified by an expanse of polytunnel above. My fingers were stained with the juice of countless strawberries, my thighs and calves burning with strain, and all I could think to myself was “how did I get myself into this?”
A week prior, two friends and I spent the day redecorating my room. As we took a break, one of my painting comrades, Phil, received a call. Not sure who he was talking to, as he hung up I asked to know more. “Oooh that was the lady from the agency”, he replied, looking over knowingly at Alex, my other painting comrade, before continuing: “she said we can start this coming Monday”.
“Nice one, that should be a pretty little earner!” Alex replied.
I learnt that Phil had set himself up with an agency for short-term work placements. The agency had found work at a fruit-growing research centre a couple of towns away. Phil asked whether I would be up for joining the two of them.
Without a whole lot of thought (and encouraged to agree to new experiences after having recently watched Yes Man) I said 'yes' to what I envisaged would be a little bit of fun in a field with friends – like Pick Your Own, but with the advantage of getting paid for it.
On the first morning, and each morning after, the four of us (Phil's brother Andy had got in on the act, too) met at the local Co-op, jumped in Andy's car and zoomed off to the farm. Once we found the place, a cheerful-looking chap called Tony greeted us, beaming a smile far too smiley for that time in the morning – he'd probably been up since 5am.
He was genuinely surprised to see four local lads wanting to do farm-labouring work; there were about 16 other workers on the farm, all of them from Lithuania, here on work placements as part of their courses.
Now began the hard work. There was no messing about and within minutes we jumped into the back of a flat-bed truck and Tony whisked us away to a nearby field.
The first task of our tenure was to pick broad beans, probably the easiest thing we ever had to undertake; the big pods easy to grab while standing and leaning, chucking them into nearby pallets and stacking them. The four of us worked away in high spirits of the honeymoon period of new job.
The ease of that first skirmish was probably a tester to see if we could execute the task of picking things and gathering them up. All other produce we picked after that ease-in was a right-royal pain in the arse. Except cherries. God love the cherries.
Raspberries notched up the picking-difficulty scale a little, but not to a cursing-and-blinding degree. The little blighters are grown in rows of trained bushes that stand about two metres in height. There were thousands to pick, and there was certainly no dawdling to be had: one pallet could fit six punnets; one punnet needed a single layer of raspberries within, which equated to about two dozen; twelve pallets had to be done within an hour. Sometimes we slacked and were shouted at. Tony wasn't impressed.
Strawberries were by far the hardest fruit to harvest. We were regularly ferried to the polytunnels, where we became servants to the strawberry plants, which grow out of the ground so require you to get down and dirty. Every strawberry picked had to be graded for size with a little tool like you would measure pasta portions with, chucked in a punnet and stacked like all the others.
The thing is, strawberries don't come off their stalk very easily; for someone like me who bites their nails blunt it was a very frustrating task. Topping it off was the scorching heatwave that was engulfing the country at the time, magnified by the polytunnel, which is great for the plants, horrible for the picker. I've been in saunas less hot than those tunnels. When we whined, Tony wasn't impressed.
Not all the work we did involved picking. Sometimes we had more practical tasks to complete, and I showed myself to be incredibly inept at labouring.
Take, for example, the day we had to set up an irrigation system in a field. Tony had laid out hundred of metres of thick, black hose pipe that snaked its way in between rows of ploughed bed.
Our job was to pierce the hose at regular intervals, then plug the holes with little sprinkler spouts. We were told that some of the hoses were old, so were already pinned. I couldn't find any pre-holes on my stretch, so proceeded to make new ones. That's all well and good, until we were 'done' and Tony started the water supply to test the setup. My whole stretch exploded into a cascading mess of mist, as the holes I hadn't found sprayed high-pressure water all over the place. Tony was not impressed.
Or consider the task of planting fruit, rather than just picking. We were given crates of strawberry starter-plugs to stick in the ground. I thought the growth coming out of one end was a tap root, thus I planted them with the 'root' downwards.
Nuh-uh. That was the plant's first sprout – I had stuck them in upside-down. "Where's the strawberry going to come out then? China?", quipped one of the Lithuanian workers. Tony came over – he was not impressed.
From the toughness of picking strawberries, to the mediocrity of raspberries – cherries were by far the best fruit to work with.
Cherries grow on trees that are trained when they're young to grow standing squat. The grove of cherry trees was covered with netting to stop birds getting a free lunch, so you had to enter the netting complex, which, somehow, felt like entering a blissful retreat.
The trees held countless thousands of the shiny red treasures. You'd get yourself into the centre of a tree and commence the pick-fest. I never had to leave the spot in which I stood; there were so many cherries around that you could just pick, pick, pick and pick. As an occasional treat, they tasted incredible. There was a certain tranquility to the whole process, so antithetic to the polytunnel experience – a real shame we only had one cherry session.
My tenure on the farm was not a long one. After battling fruit for a lengthy stretch of....two weeks....I came to the conclusion that I was not tough enough for the job. I threw in the towel and left, without ever properly saying goodbye to Tony. I just couldn't face it.
I bet he wasn't impressed.
Jack Tomlin is the Production Assistant for Gizmodo UK and Kotaku UK. When not tinkering with the sites' back-ends, he can be found on a snooker table or throwing a frisbee.
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