Beyond the Baton - April 2021

As promised, I thought I’d describe my other non-ETSO “job”, which is as far removed from the refined setting of a typical concert hall as one can get! 

Many of you know that I am now a resident of Texas, having married into a family with an agricultural bent.  My father-in-law is a retired plant pathologist, whose idea of retirement is to cultivate, grow and harvest peach trees.  A whole lot of them.

Although the care and maintenance of these trees is a year-round job, the seasonal peach crew (the spouse, the 5 children, most of their spouses and a couple of hired hands) of the aforementioned father-in-law, Dr. George Philley, works primarily in the summer during the harvest, roughly mid-June to early August.

Even my nephew, Jonah, lends a hand when he visits East Texas.

Work begins at 7am, 7 days a week during peak season (most of July, with Sundays off during non-peak) at the orchards in Arp, TX, a 30m drive from Tyler.  Sometimes we’re done after a few hours but the longest days can go 13 or 14 hours.  Although Dr. Philley plants different varieties which in theory should ripen at different times, in REALITY sometimes a whole bunch of peaches ripen at the same time and need to be picked right away.

I’d describe a typical work day as consisting of prep, picking, grading and loading.  I’ll briefly describe each phase. 

When the crew arrives, we usually start by loading trucks with peaches ready to sell that morning.  We then hitch trailers to tractors, load and make boxes and start to pick.

Each picker wears a strap with two hooks, to which we attach an empty box.  We then disperse to our rows and start picking ready peaches.  When boxes are full (roughly 25lbs), we hand them off to a “box boy”, who is usually the least experienced worker whose job is to give us a new box and place our full box on the trailer.  Repeat, repeat and repeat, over and over again.  This job requires more focus that one would assume, as it can be challenging to determine when a peach should be picked or left on the tree, and the characteristics one looks for (size, shape, colour) changes for each different variety.  The lighting underneath a tree is often not ideal either.  The picking phase tends to last 2-5 hours.

Once done picking for the day, we usually break for lunch, then proceed to grading.  The box boy becomes the “dumper”, whose job is to gently dump peaches onto a machine with a conveyor belt which sorts peaches according to their size.  Four workers “grade” peaches, which involves holding and visually inspecting each peach for size, flaws, blemishes and ripeness, and sorting into 3 groups:  good peach (#1), slightly flawed peach (#2) or a throw-away (compost).  Again, this job is way harder than it sounds, full of judgement calls and occasional discussions about whether a certain peach is a #1 or #2.  It is frankly also more difficult because by then, I’m physically and mentally ready for a dip in the pool!  This takes another 2-4 hours. 

At last we load!  We take the sorted and weighed (25 lbs) boxes of peaches and put them into the cooler, strategically placed so that we can easily access the peaches we’ll need the next day.  Normally this doesn’t take too long, but since my brain isn’t asked to work that much, all it can think about is the pool, so this final job tends to seem to last forever.  Occasionally, when our regular coolers are full, we have to go off-site and borrow a cooler located 15m away.  Thankfully, it is on the way to Tyler, so most of the workers have a shorter drive home!

I can’t effectively describe how mentally and physically taxing these days are, especially for a city boy like me, unused to manual labour.  And goodness me, peach fuzz gets EVERYWHERE.  I’ve discovered that I’m allergic to the stuff, so long sleeves, even during the dog days of summer, is essential.  But we all take pride in the peaches we produce, and I can say without conscious bias that these are the best peaches I’ve ever consumed in my life.  On stage, in the classroom, and in the orchard, quality matters.

Richard Lee

P.S.   All the varieties grown are great, but keep an eye out for Scarlet Prince peaches.  They don’t have a classic peach “look”, but they often taste amazing.  You’re welcome.

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