For as long as memory serves me, summers in the Creston Valley have always been a busy and exciting time, in particular the cherry harvest, a frenetic six week window from mid-July to August, requiring the filling of hundreds of short-term jobs to pick, sort, and pack cherries from over 400+ acres of orchards across the valley. Often destined for high-end markets in Europe or Asia, these delicious but perishable little fruits had to be harvested fast and furiously, even more so if a passing storm or bad weather ominously appeared on the horizon.
Like many high-school and college students from Creston (not to mention vacationing teachers), I would often manage to find some work picking, sorting, or driving tractor during the cherry season. This gave me some added money on top up the regular summer jobs I would find.
The cherry harvest also became synonymous with enduring tractor-led traffic jams in Erickson, hearing them in the orchards late in the night, and more recently watching low flying helicopters hovering over orchards to dry off the trees after rainstorms. As someone who lives in the middle of an orchard I am often abruptly reminded that though it is idyllic, I am in fact in the middle of a working farm abuzz with activity at any hour!
The Cherry Pickers Pilgrimage – A Brief History
However, nothing heralded the arrival of the cherry harvest more than the appearance of bohemian-looking youth on the streets and roads of this sleepy, quiet farm town. With exotic francophone accents, creatively repainted old camper vans, and a zest for hard-work and fun, hundreds of “pickers” would annually make the pilgrimage to BC for the summer. Their arrival brought a sudden contrasting flavour to quiet, close-knit, and steady-as-she-goes towns from Keremeos to Creston!
For many local residents the pickers have often been viewed with an air of exoticism, mystery, curiosity, and occasionally with some skepticism. For Creston’s older population the relationship was complex. While they appreciated the pickers’ importance to the success of the cherry industry, they had a difficult time understanding the charms of this transient lifestyle in comparison to having a permanent home and full-time job, and so kept a friendly but cordial distance.
However, Young Crestonites like myself developed friendships with our out-of-town compatriots in the orchards, relating to shared experiences and inspirations. Much like Cherry Picking, Tree-planting or Forest Fire Fighting jobs offered many of us in BC an opportunity to explore our vast and diverse country while saving money living rent-free. With these dollars saved many of my friends paid their way through college and/or backpacked around the world.
With Canadian housing prices sky-rocketing and full-time jobs dwindling since the recession of 2008, this lifestyle has only grown in popularity as millennials look for alternatives to the now mythical 9-to-5; think mobile food trucks, urban farming, the tiny home movement, and the return of young urban professionals to affordable small towns rich in lifestyle. In an austere world we’ve learned to live with less, but live for “more”.
In fact, it has been the influences of these global changes that brought me back to Creston after years eeking out a living from entry level jobs in big cities like Tokyo and Vancouver. In contrast Creston welcomed me and my liberal arts BA with open arms! Though I’ve had to hodge-podge work together at times, I have been able to pursue dreams and ideas – like blogging and three months travelling in Central America – that would have been unaffordable in expensive cities like Vancouver. And I’m not alone; between 2006 and 2011, the young adult population in Creston boomed by 33.9%, changing the demographics of the community drastically and bringing a new, younger generation back to the valley.
The BC Cherry Industry and Global Competition – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
And the cherry picking industry hasn’t been immune to these global influences either, with many pickers not only from Quebec, but increasingly from Mexico, Japan, and Spain where youth unemployment has persistently hovered over 25% since 2008.
Simeltaneously, It’s been a tough few years for orchardists in BC amid stiff competition from Washington state cherries, which flooded into BC after the drop in the Canadian dollar last year. In turn smaller farmers have been selling out to new owners, who in order to compete, have combined these smaller orchards into larger operations.
Of course with these changes in the scale of industry challenges have arisen, straining the relationship between Creston Valley residents, seasonal cherry pickers, and orchardists themselves. With larger orchards comes larger logistical problem; maintaining more trees and managing larger crews of pickers.
In particular, accommodations for pickers have been increasingly problematic, highlighted by a noticeable increase of illegal camping under the Canyon Bridge by some pickers in recent years, heigtening frustration between all parties.
Disputes over wages, working conditions, and accommodations between a few orchardists and pickers also led to a demonstration on Saturday, July 23rd through downtown Creston by approximately 60-70 pickers and locals in solidarity with them. While the demonstration was not directed at all orchardists and there are certainly two sides to the dispute, it does mark a new level of tension between orchardists and workers. It also highlights the need to address the core of these problems as the amount of acres of cherry orchards in the Creston Valley are predicted to double in the next five years.
This has also come to the attention of the Fields Forward Labour Working group, which developed a survey for pickers about their accommodations in order to better understand the problem and hopefully find a resolution to it. In mid-July I was subsequently hired to administer the survey and connect with pickers, orchardists, and community stakeholders to learn about these issues.
In the past three weeks I have also witnessed massive community outpouring of support for cherry pickers, especially the volunteers from the Orchard Workers Support Group who cooked and dolled out free lunches for two weeks in the Catholic Church Parking lot, and the Erickson Covenant Church’s annual Pickers Dinner on Saturday, July 23rd , which fed more than 300 people this year!
Picker Profiles – Conversations with Three Creston Valley Pickers
While doing this work I’ve also had the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people working as pickers. They come to work from many places, like two masters degree students from Mexico saving money for school, while others like a veteran-picking couple, who met working years ago, have since moved to Wynndel and bought a house.
With so much attention and interest in the orchard industry right now and a lack of knowledge about most pickers in our community I thought it would be an opportunity to find out more about who these folks are, why they made the choice to come, and what their experience has been like.
Over the past three weeks I have had the chance to sit down and talk with three people; Chloe, Patrick, and Hector and hear about their stories. The following are highlights from those interviews as well as the full audio interviews and I hope others find it as interesting and inspiring as I did.
Hector Sanchez – 1st Year Picker
Age: 27 Years Old
Home: Barcelona Spain
What do you do back home? So theres not a lot of jobs for the young people back in spain, so I was doing some part-time jobs, but none that I really liked or enjoyed particularly. So I decided to do something different.
What type of jobs were you doing back home? Just working sometimes with kids, monitoring things or English teaching. Also, as a steward in congresses and fairs, but sporadic. No regular job or income.
What inspired you to come picking? Well I think I first heard of cherry picking like probably like four years ago. I was travelling in Mexico. I guess some point in spring I heard about picking. I had the idea, but I came back that year to my country, but the next few years it was another option. But finally this year I said okay, it’s a good time to do it. I had some money for the early expenses so, yeah…
Whats been the best part of picking for you? I don”t know… making money? Haha. Maybe just the lifestyle. I wasn’t having the best time of my life back in Spain, so I came here for a change and for work and I got both things, so I guess just the whole thing has been… the best.
I think the working conditions could definitely improve. The wages could also improve, because I think they haven’t been raised in the last years.
Whats the most challenging thing that happened for you? Well its probably been the uncertainty of many things. Like you never know for sure if you are going to work the next day, because of weather or the bosses change their mind… Some owners don’t really consider our situation like they should. Waking up is a bit hard, but its okay.
What do you plan to do after the picking season? I want to travel a bit around BC. Maybe the Rockies, Alberta, Squamish, Vancouver Island, Nelson, Nakusp… I don’t know much of the map yet, but those are some of the ideas.
What do you think of your experience in Creston in comparison with the Okanagan? Its been good for me. I found a job quickly… but I think the working conditions could definitely improve. The wages could also improve, because I think they haven’t been raised in the last years. And yeah some organization like… the consideration towards the pickers… Food, accommodations.
Patrick Leduc – 1st Year Picker
Age: 24 years old
Home: Mont Tremblant, Quebec
What do you do back home? I will continue my studying at University
What do you study?Anthropology, cultural and social
What inspired you to come picking? What inspire me? Nature. To work with nature… And for the trip, just to travel Canada and be outside all day.
Whats been the best part of the picking experience? Its really meet people and be outside. It’s really about connect with some people you don’t meet before, but you soon can do like a good relationship… like really fast. And just nature and outside.
What was the most challenging experience for you? I think it is the language barrier. It’s difficult because I understand really clearly English, but to talk its maybe not really clearly all time. Now its better then when I arrived, but its really the language.
What will you do after the cherry picking season? I will do maybe apple picking. I think I will do peaches picking before. And after grape picking. And after going to Tofino and maybe doing some some surf. And maybe after going to Quebec.
… here I don’t feel like a stranger and the community are really [welcoming] … I came here and just like the people walking the street say hello and it’s really nice.
Do you think you’ll come back again? Yeah, because I think I realize I really need to work outside. Before I was here, it was three summers that I’m not working outside. Before that I was always working outside… I’m really not a sedentary person… I’m not not an electronical person, I don’t play at games or whatever like that.
I’ve got one last question. What are your passions and hobbies? I’m a kind of artistic person. I’ve done school trips and things. A lot of artist things, like artisanal things. But I’m not just an artistic person. I’m really sportive too. And I’m a “library rat”
What do you think about your experience in Creston? I really like my experience in Creston… The trees are really beautiful and the place are really more a good atmosphere. Back in Osoyoos they don’t like pickers… and we feel like we are strangers. And here I don’t feel like a stranger and the community are really [welcoming] … I came here and just like the people walking the street say hello and it’s really nice. It reminds me of when I was living in Mont Tremblant…
Chloe Morin-Chartier – 2nd Year Picker
Age: 24 Years old
Home: Montreal/Granby/Sherbrook, Quebec
What do you do back home? That’s a hard one because I haven’t been home for almost two years.
Really? what did you do? I went to Australia to do some picking and travel. I went to Mexico. I picked last year as well, so its been a while.
So what inspired you to come picking? In the first place I met Regan [a former Erickson orchardist]. The first time I pick, It was like Regan that gave me an apple picking job, because I was in Creston with my friend, and we had not much money. And she was like “you girls should come to my place and make $20 at least”…
So it was kind of just luck passing through Creston?Well I knew and I knew people were doing it and I was thinking of doing it because I was travelling. Its been four years that I’ve been travelling on and off. When you pick its like tree planting… you can work for a little bit and then go travel a while… and It’s a lifestyle as well.
Some people go to school and take their vacation for picking or like some people travel and they go and come and follow seasons. Some people do that in Australia and New Zealand too. I picked cherries, but also apples and plums and mandarins.
What’s been the best part of picking? It’s all the opportunities… I won’t say it’s the picking world, but it’s the travelling world and they’re kind of related. When you start picking you start meeting people that… are going to Mexico, that are going to Central America, South America for the winter or had plans to go to Australia. And you get to see that like people, that its possible to travel with less, and just like live simply and that’s something picking taught.
Do you think it developed a good work ethic? Yeah, because you earn what you… deserve… Like in an hourly paid job some people will be not doing a 100%… When you’re picking it’s your own choice. If I decide not to force myself and not do much the only person’s fault its going to be is mine. And it teaches you like what you can do and pushing yourself.
you earn what you… deserve… Like in an hourly paid job some people will be not doing a 100%… When you’re picking it’s your own choice.
Whats been the most challenging part of the experience? I don’t see picking as a bad challenge. I think like for me the most challenging part has been learning to challenge myself…The thing with me is with me I always see challenge with a good perspective.
What will you do after the picking season finishes? My parents are coming to visit me and after that I’m going to Australia to do some more picking… I might go to Asia. We’ll see.
Will you come back again? Yeah, I think I will. But also a few days ago I wasn’t sure. Probably I will come back, but you never know whats going to happen. You might find something new… I’m very open about my life. I might come back, I might not. You never know… Go with the flow.
What do you think about your experience in Creston? Whats it like in comparison to the Okanagan and Canada? I mean Canada is beautiful. I mean in Australia, besides Tasmania… like when you pick in New South Wales… you don’t go there for picking somewhere where it’s nice. I mean here you have the mountains, the nature, the river. We do rock climbing. Theres lots of things you get to do. Yeah I really like Creston and I’ve been here many time. I keep coming back, because I really like it.
I hope you come back too. Yeah, I will come back.
Thanks to anyone who took the time to read these three interviews. I hope it was informative and gave some interesting perspective on the lives of Creston’s seasonal cherry pickers and what inspires them to do what they do. Until next time!