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Photo: Bee and thistle: Taken high in the Cascade Mountains where there is a bee buzzing on every thistle. by Debora Rorvig

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Strawberry Fields Forever

Sometime around the end of  May to early in June back in the 60's (and for decades before then) the strawberry fields in North Whatcom County would ripen. On warm summer days the air would be pearmeated with the fragrance of the sweet ripened fruit.
     Just a day or so after school was out for the summer; we'd get up at daybreak and go out to the roadside to be picked up by berry buses and transported to the fields for the harvesting of the crop.  The growers would lure us with newspaper advertisements boasting of having the biggest berries with generous payouts. As I recall, when I began my berry picking career, back in the third grade, 80 cents per flat was the going rate. A few years later we earned a walloping $1.00 per flat with a 20 cent per flat bonus for picking all season. A younger child might only pick 4 flats per day-but the teenagers were able to sometimes pick 20 or more. (A flat is 12 boxes-not the little open weave boxes you buy in the store, but large cannery size boxes.) My very first check for the season was $30.00. The last year I picked, I made around $200.00. I've had many jobs in my 55 years, but the money I made picking berries was the hardest-earned.

So...having chosen the very best grower, which for me was the Curt Mayberry farm;  bright and early at 6:30 a.m. my berry picking partner Patty and I would  be sitting on the curb waiting for Mayberry's bus to come rolling by. Our raggedy clothing was layered--cut-off  blue jeans beneath our long pants; tank tops with a t-shirt on top- with  dad's old  plaid flannel shirt as a jacket. No need to wear nice things to the field- by the end of the day we'd be dirt, head to toe, and covered with strawberry stains.
In the mornings the fields were cool and damp and the leafy plants were laden with dew, so our flannel shirts served to keep us warm and dry. As the  noon-day sun rose over the fields and began to bake them dry, we'd remove the layers and tie them about our waist, or use them as a cushions beneath our knees as we crawled along the long dirt rows between the berry plants. Often we'd leave a sweatshirt at the end of our row as a marker. In those acres and acres of berries, when you went to the outhouse, it was sometimes hard to locate our row again!

Now there's a right way and a wrong way to pick strawberries for processing. The berries you buy in the grocery store have the stems left on, which makes them stay fresh longer, but berries bound for the  canneries must be de-stemmed. The best way to pick them was to hold the bottom half of the berry in one hand while grasping the stemmed top with the other, and twisting the top off. Then while still holding the picked berry, grasping another one, and another, until you had a whole handful of berries to toss into your bucket. The work was back-breaking, so you had to change positions often. For awhile my partner and I would each take a side of the row...picking to the middle. When our knees became stiff and embedded with dirt; we'd straddle the rows and work toward one another. Then when our backs became so sore that we couldn't straighten up anymore, we'd go back to our side by side positions on our knees.
     I suppose there are now child labor laws to 'protect' children from having to work so hard. But we knew how to make it fun. Transistor radios were the newest rage, and we brought ours to the fields. We grooved to Little Deuce Coop and Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys...sang "I'm Hennery the Eighth I Am"  in unison with Herman's Hermits; and of course, the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" was our anthem. We younger girls always had a crushes on the older teenage boys, who always had crushes on the more well-endowed girls. You know the type; they wore their teeny weeny bikini tops under their t-shirts; and would wait until the boys were nearby. Then they'd complain loudly about how hot they were; while slowly and dramatically removing their tee shirts- to the whoops and hollers of the adolescent boys. I don't know how, but those girls somehow managed to keep their hair perfect throughout even the most sweltering afternoons- while the rest of got so filthy we looked like the Tar Baby in Brer Rabbit's Tale. And despite the bosses' repeated warnings, there was at least one good berry-fight every day.  The mushy, nearly rotten berries were the best ammunition- they'd splat on your enemy's shirt leaving a red stain the size of a pancake. We were sneaky though, zinging berries behind the bosses back, lest we be fired and lose our year end bonus.
     At noon-time we'd retrieve our paper lunch-sacks from the bus and finding a grassy spout under the maple trees that lined the field; eating peanut butter and jam sandwiches while joking with our friends and comparing how many flats we'd picked that morning. Our Shasta brand pop, purchased at the Safeway store for 10 cents a can, had been frozen night before; and was a refreshing, slushy treat by lunchtime. Still, one can of pop wasn't enough fluid for a long day's work, so the growers had water barrels with hand-spigots that we could drink when we were thirsty.
     We usually worked until 4 or 5 p.m.; but sometimes, if we'd finished the entire field, we'd get to go home early; maybe at 3! On those days, once home, we'd jump in a cold shower then beg our parents to take us to the lake for a cold, refreshing swim. Our parents had once been berry pickers, and knew how hard we'd worked; so often they would take us to Lake Whatcom or out to Birch Bay for a cool dip.
     The strawberry season lasted until around the 4th of July. Then came the raspberry harvest, followed by beans, cucumbers, and blueberries. I didn't work as hard as some; I only picked strawberries and raspberries. But I earned enough money to buy most of my school clothes in the fall.
     I've been told by some that we were exploited by the berry growers. I don't see it that way. We learned how to work and to work hard! How to stick with something until we were done. To know how good it feels having money that we earned ourselves, and to lighten the financial burdens of our families by buying our own clothing.  Actually, in some ways I think that our well intended labor laws have robbed our children of the opportunity to experience the feeling that comes with a job well done.
    These days there aren't as many strawberry fields in our parts. Someone invented automated raspberry picking machines; so most of the berry growers switched their fields to raspberries. It's probably more cost effective to buy a machine or two, rather than to pay hundreds of childrens and migrant workers to pick strawberries by hand.
     Nevertheless, every June I remember those strawberry pickin' days. In my memories they will always remain...Strawberry Fields Forever.

From the Curt Mayberry website--they still grow strawberries!


Red Gate Farm said...

What a wonderful bunch of memories! Sadly, my mom never let me pick berries. My oldest sister did and for some reason she never let the rest of us pick after that..... My husband did and he was one of those types that ate more than he picked!

My son actually works for a local raspberry farmer and they still work hard in those fields, picker or not! He works from about 5 or 6 am until midnight or one for at least 3 or 4 weeks in July. Of course theres lots of hours up to and after the main harvest as well. And with the price of raspberries I can see why most berry growers have switched!

I must say, strawberries from Northwest WAshington taste so much better than from warmer states :)


PS I loved the bit about the Shasta pop... we used to get to take one in our lunch on field trip days... my mom always wrapped it in foil to keep it colder... don't know if that really made a difference!

jojo said...

This is so very funny...I was telling my hubs last night just how much work the berry picking was in those days. I strawberry picked but not for long as I found I had an allergy to the berry and the fertilizer. BUT it was the hardest physical labour I've ever done and your story is spot on...with the pretty girls and the shasta soda...oh my, and the horrors of the outhouse!

Anonymous said...

While waiting for the drizzly weather to clear this morning before heading for work on the raspberry picker at Curt Maberry Farms I ran across this story of yours. It brought back my own memories from just a mere 4 weeks ago when I started my work for CMF as a checker in the strawberry fields. Also I was not a picker I was there from the time the pickers started to after they were finished; in a sense experienced with them the dewy mornings, warming mid mornings and then hot temps ( although I never thought I'd say 70's was hot) frozen juice or water bottles and now the ever present and popular TACO TRUCK. What an awesome experience it was. I have appreciated CMF from a distance when my college kids worked there summers and now I get a summer to experience the berry harvest in Whatcom county.

Debora said...

Hello Anon!
Thanks for visiting! I'm so glad you've gotten to experience the berry harvest in Whatcom County. A taco truck would have been the cat's meow! We didn't have water or juice bottles back when I picked---it's hard to believe, isn't it?


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