I’ve gone apple-picking with friends a few times, and picked berries too. As I strolled through picturesque orchards and shielded my eyes from the autumn sunlight, I couldn’t help but think: This is someone’s job.
I work in a cubicle. How would it feel if, on the weekends, a bunch of people from a few towns over dressed themselves in business casual, gathered around my desk, and Instagrammed pictures of each other perched on my rolling chair, pretending to type away at my laptop?
That’s not a perfect analogy—my cubicle is anything but pastoral. This thought experiment having failed, I decided the best way to learn how apple farmers feel about going apple-picking was to ask them.
“I have never met or heard of someone coming to our Eastern Washington apple-growing region to pick apples for leisure,” Jeff Pheasant, a 5th-generation apple farmer in Soap Lake, Washington, told me. “It must be an East Coast or urban thing.” Pheasant Orchards employed 20 full-time and several additional part-time workers to harvest 9 million pounds of apples this year, and Pheasant found the idea of picking for fun “hilarious and sad,” a reflection of just how estranged from nature modern Americans must feel.
“We don't try to build our own furniture, or cars. We don't feel the need to go to the forest ourselves to cut a tree down when we need lumber,” he said, adding, “Our economy has raised people's quality of life by becoming more efficient and productive. I don't understand why we want to go backwards when it comes to agriculture.”
Pheasant was bewildered that anyone would care to pick their own apples, but another farmer I spoke with said her farm welcomes leisure pickers. Keri Wilson, whose family’s Washington farm has been operating for more than 125 years, told me what it feels like to be working while people are picking apples for fun. “We’re picking, and they come out to have this experience, but we become part of the zoo,” she says. “They look at you as if you’re … under the microscope.”
Wilson says she and her coworkers sometimes feel a need to perform for visitors. “There’s a belief that they’re coming out to see these poor dumb people,” she sighs. She says that everyone in her family has gone to college, and some hold advanced degrees. “We’re not stupid people,” she says.
Though it’s a leisure activity for some, picking apples professionally is demanding work. “Picking apples off a tree is not the same as being an apple-picker,” says Jeff Pheasant. The majority of apples in supermarkets are picked by hand, and the annual U.S. apple harvest is estimated to involve 70,000 workers. On a good day, a worker might fill up between eight and 12 900-pound bins, according to Pheasant. Professional pickers tend to work seasonally, with many driving hundreds of miles (sometimes with families in tow) to reap pumpkins, pears, berries, or whatever is in season in various parts of the country. (Researchers at Washington State University, which is near America’s biggest apple-producing region, announced last summer that they were testing an apple-picking robot.)
The nature of pick-your-own attractions has changed significantly in recent decades. It used to be that people would come to the fields to buy fruit cheaply and in bulk, for canning. “Now,” Wilson says, “they're coming out because they want to have little Sarah get a photo under the tree holding onto a piece of fruit. They buy two pieces of fruit or three pieces of fruit, and they walk around the orchard as if it were an animal park.”
Because today’s pick-your-own visitors aren’t buying nearly as much fruit, Wilson Banner Ranch, where Keri Wilson works, has adapted its business model. “We do make a ton of money on apple sippers, when we sell cider,” Wilson says. “You-picking is a way to attract people to encourage that sale.”
The other purpose pick-your-own serves now is reducing what Wilson calls “the ‘gong’ questions.” “We have people that come here and they’ll say, ‘When are the oranges going to be ready?’” she says. “Well, if you know anything about the Pacific Northwest, the oranges will never be ready, because they come from California.”
As I talked to apple farmers, their bewilderment at leisure picking became my own: How did the idea of picking apples for fun even come to be in the first place?
“There are a couple of old theories about the relationship between work and leisure,” says Gerry Chick, a retired professor of recreation, park, and tourism management at Penn State. First, there’s the spillover theory, which holds that people spend their leisure time doing things related to their jobs. “So, somebody who works with heavy equipment, for example, plays with electric trains as a hobby,” Chick says. (In his own free time, Chick still likes doing data analysis like the kind he did while working.) And then there’s the compensation theory, which says that in their free time, people do what they can to forget about their professional obligations. “I am not quite sure which your apples example best fits,” Chick says. “Sounds like some sort of compensation to me.”
“Along with desk jobs can come a sense of disconnection from nature, and I think this is playing in,” says Scott Cohen, a professor of tourism management at the University of Surrey, in England. “It allows for a tactile connection with nature. The ‘work’ is multi-sensual—one doesn’t just see, but can smell, feel and taste the apples.”
It turns out that Americans have a curious history of using their time off to observe workers—often workers engaged in physical labor. “Tourist curiosity in work sites dates from the early-nineteenth century,” writes the historian Cindy S. Aron in her book Working at Play: Vacations in the United States. The earliest known example seems to come from the Pennsylvania coal town of Maunch Chunk, which started attracting tourists in the 1820s. Through the rest of the century, ironworks and factories drew travelers as well. An 1888 guidebook had this tip for visiting Chicago’s livestock-trading center: “Grain Elevators are a very interesting feature, and should be visited, in order to obtain an idea of the manner in which the immense grain-trade of Chicago is carried on.”
On a vacation in September 1878, Aron writes, a legal professional named Matthew Deady toured a mill and a mine. In his diary, Deady wrote that while 1,700 feet underground, he “took a handful of the soft mealy ore.” He continued:
The Thermometer was 110. I had on a flannel shirt and drawers and perspired as if in a hot bath. We reached the daylight again after an hours [sic] absence and had a most delicious tepid shower bath.
Deady’s version of fun was essentially the simulated workday of a miner. The emphasis, though, should be on “simulated”: Upon resurfacing, the mine’s owner presented him with champagne.
What on earth compelled Matthew Deady to tour a filthy, overheated mine in his leisure time? Aron has three theories. First, and perhaps least applicable to today’s apple-pickers, she suggests that visiting workplaces “served to reinforce Americans’ belief in their countrymen’s ingenuity and technological expertise.” Second, she writes, “Touring a workplace allowed middle-class vacationers to be connected to work while they were also at play—helping perhaps to elide tensions produced by the idleness of vacationing.” Again, that’s a theory that probably says more about 19th-century mines than 21st-century orchards, which few leisure pickers associate with the idea of work.
But Aron’s third idea echoes some of Keri Wilson’s feelings: “Such tourism allowed middle-class tourists to measure the gulf between themselves and those whom they observed at work,” Aron writes, “marking their difference from the working class even while affirming the centrality of work to middle-class life.”
That’s the interpretation I find most compelling, and Wilson said something that supported this theory as well. “Because we're farmers, we want to promote agrotourism … and we want them to enjoy the dream they have in their head, whatever that is,” Wilson told me. “You can't disabuse them too much of their notion, but you have to gently pull them away from the idea that the skilled employees we have … [are] not idiots off the street.”
Wilson says that in recent years, as highbrow culture has romanticized the idea of going back to the land and working with one’s hands, she has been approached by earnest young people hoping to be farmers, only to have them quit shortly after seeing how much physical work it requires. “Those momentary frustrations are with every job,” she says, “but I think with ours, people see us at the most bountiful time of the year, so it looks glamorous.”