“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.”