If you head south from Kelowna on a June eve, and drive through the Okanagan valley of Canada, there is a surefire chance of finding a few pickers along the way. Every year, a couple thousand vagabonds from the quebec province, and some far farther away like australia, and europe flock to the californian-esque wine canyons of the Okanagan to do one thing, harvest fruit.
I was one of these modern day vagabonds, though traveling from Texas instead, after treeplanting in Caribou, BC. I hoofed it down through Quesnel, Williams Lake, and a few other no namers and after being stranded on mushroom beach in Kelowna finally made it to the haven of cherry country. This year I returned to work on two haskap farms, a perennial berry with Russian and Japanese heritage.
The route starts at the border of Washington, in a small town called Osoyoos, where the first ripe cherries of the year will be red for reaping. A picker finds a camp here, humbly purchased from the local Canadian Tire if you are roughing it, or a more luxury style from MEC, some even have their own vehicles, but hitch hiking is bar standard around here. The picker will loose around town for the last few weeks of May, haggling the farmers around for a contract or three to start in June when the heat wave swelters in. Then its picking time from before the sun rises, until around high noon, realistically 1-2 when the sun is highest and hottest in the sky. The cherries picked in the morning hours before the dew condensates off the grass and the air still has a crisp chill like cider, is the ideal time for the fruit to come off the tree. You wear your regalia, a bucket that will hold a few kilos of cherries, and each one puts a fiver in your pocker. Some people do 20, 30, 40 buckets a day.
After the farms are bare of the red gems, you move north, to Oliver, and maybe take a thinning job for awhile with peaches and nectarines, or tend to grape vines, shucking, tucking, and pruning. This is the boring work, and doesn’t go by piece, so you don’t earn much, but you could have shorter days, take a siesta during the sun baking hours, and then put in some time in the evening before making camp. Soon enough the cherries will also be ready. Oliver and Osoyoos have the most wineries and cideries, and I have known some folks to get paid in wine and cash every day. Most of the wineries will only hire Mexicans that they fly up every year for labor positions, the rest are owned by East Indians and Sikhs. This can be a tricky relationship, because they and culturally a trades people, merchants for thousands of years, and the handling of money is something they are clever with. They can be hustlers if you are not careful, so a picker needs to make themselves clear and coherent if you don’t want to get taken advantage of. I have personally worked with several of these Hindoos, and while they were generous with hours, and the occasional cherry moonshine break in the shade, the money was not always what was expected. Working with the Mexicans still makes me feel a little closer to getting a fair deal, they don’t complain, but they know how to have a good time.
A picker can follow the work from mile 0, up through OK Falls, Kaleden, Penticton, Summerland, Peachland, and Kelowna with some east and west diversions in Keremeos and Cawston taking up anything from picking red and black cherries, to cutting table grapes, harvesting cider apples, making wine, or sweating it out in a greenhouse, or a tree farm. By the end of July, dependind on how much alcohol you choose to consume, you may leave a few grand saved up, then some people choose to caravan south to the festival circuits in the U.S.
Over a three year time span, the Okangan has been my home for at least two partial seasons. The Nk’mip Indian reserve and desert habitat is a great attractor, and the landscape is yield to some beautiful flowering cactus, wild sage, white tailed deer, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and songbirds. I have spent many hours with the French, around dying fires, and wandering the town, looking for a distraction or stimulation from the picking routine. They are a loud and crazy bunch, but do have the ability to be subtle and informative. They will tell you about the best places to find morels that year, and their stories from the Yukon. The lifestyle of a picker is rather a smorgaboard of different personas, but most of them are free-living hippie types who drive thrifty cars or volkwagens, and spend their time in the parks smoking chronic joints. The picking is intense for about a month, and then it’s over, unless you know how to move through the zones for different cultivars and ranges of the fruit, but you won’t be limited to fruit. Several stands are set up for vege as well, and there is potato, tomato, asparagus, and green reaping as well, but it’s not as common. I can say the work can be fairly monotonous when you are standing under a tree, always seeing the same thing, and performing the same movements over and over, but you can find the odd organic orchard, that may do things at a slightly different pace from the monoculture of cherries, peaches, and apples.
It is easy to find work for a traveler if you come with the right mindset. Just sit in a cafe and folks will tend to instigate a conversation and ask you what you are doing in the valley, tell them I sent you.