Tuesday, June 28, 2016

farmlife issue no. 12

I got such a fun response to my last post about blueberry harvest! You guys had some great questions & seriously, I love to share about harvest. It's only my 4th summer of it, & I'm still learning & loving it. Blackberry harvest is in full swing now, too. This is a little glimpse of that. (I think I enjoy blackberry harvest even more than blueberries. It's mostly just family that helps & it feels so...nostalgic.
 This is a berry harvester. It was designed in a little town here locally. Berry harvest is such a small niche market that the farmers have to do a lot of their own fabricating & making do with altering mainstream machinery. Farming takes creativity ;).

The berry picker sits above the blackberry bushes which have been trained around wires. There are "beaters" (those hairbrush looking spokes) that shake the blackberry canes & any ripe berries drop off into a catcher near the bottom of the machine that ferries the berries up a conveyor belt of padded cups to the platform above. 

A vent above the conveyor sucks up leaves & other little things that you wouldn't want to eat. There are 2-3 people picking out the undesirables from the berries as they pass on the conveyor belt & finally drop into crates. One person is constantly placing empty crates at the end of the conveyor to catch the berries, & another is taking the full crates to a pallet on the back of the platform. 
After the pallets are full, they have to unload them. The back part of the platform can be lowered & they open the back gate & take off the full pallets of berries & replace them with empty ones. Then it's back out into the field for another few rounds. 

This is all done at night to ensure that the blackberries are as firm & in the hardiest condition possible to be picked. It's easy for me to say this when my warm comfortable bed is promising a good night's rest, but there's something so magical about standing outside in the evening, just after dark, & being able to hear the hum of the pickers from our farm & the neighboring ones, & to see their lights just above the sea of blackberry canes, & hear the chatter of the night crew. There's just an energy & excitement & sense of "we're in this together". It makes me so content & happy to be where I am, & feel like I'm part of it all. The high schoolers & college kids that make up the night crew might argue that on the nights it's 40 degrees & raining:). 
The work isn't fun, but it's a season everyone in the family helps out. They've all put their nights on the picker in. Some younger than others. (Dar says he was driving it as a 12-year-old!! Laws & regulations wouldn't allow that now, but they did what they had to then.) It can be really steep in spots, & with a three-wheeled, hefty machine, I make sure I pray for safety every night! God has been good to us so far. 
No one's been hurt yet. Cousins from here & out of state come to help, making the work a little more bearable. I do feel a little sorry for the kids: it's summer, & they spend most of their day sleeping so they can work nights. But they're in it together, & when Dar talks about his memories with his cousins working on the berry farm, I'm really excited to think that perhaps my IL nephews maybe will be spending their teen summers living with their Oregon auntie, helping out on their berry farm...

It is such a family affair, more so than the blueberries. They rely on the kids to run the night crew. The working boys help out on their Saturdays off, & in the evenings, everyone is together, gearing up for a night of picking. We women keep the home fires burning & moral up by making treats to take out to the night crew & washing the helplessly stained berry clothes & maintaining the myriad of little things that have to be done while everyone else eats, sleeps, dreams berries. I rarely hear any other topic of conversation this time of year. 
Talking is a big part of the harvest, too:). It's usually done in romeos (the work shoe of choice here), local fertilizer co-op hats, & hands in berry-stained jeans.
A night of blackberry picking can bring in 80,000 pounds of berries. 80,000 pounds. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the massive amounts of berries harvested. In the mornings, Dar & Tom have to drive in those thousands of pounds of fruit. Sometimes, Fee & I tag along. 
The cannery is a crazy place of whizzing forklifts, lines of trucks, and pallets & pallets of berries. A lot of our blackberries go next door to the pie company I worked at before I had Fee. The berry processing plant used to be owned by the same people, & the berries still go into the Willamette Valley Pie Company's berries.  (Love that! It just all fits together so nicely.) I recognize most of the farmer's now, & even know a lot of the varieties they grow. A blackberry isn't just a blackberry. There are marionberries, the queen of them all, the kotata, which we have, & obsidians, columbia stars, black diamonds, metolius. 
Depending on your variety, quality, & the needs of the market, the berries will go into IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) packages or purees. Machine-picked berries aren't normally sold as fresh market berries because they do get a little damaged in the picking process. IQF is ideal, but these barrels are there for the berries that will be made into puree. 
Pureed berries go into all your other berry products: jams, juices, canned goods. The IQF berries go through a nitrogen tunnel & are quick frozen (hence the name) & packaged up to be sold in smoothie blends & the like. The Willamette Valley Pie Co sells 2# & 5# bags of all kinds of berries! And pie:). It's pretty awesome to go in the store, see the bags of berries & rows of pies & know our berries are in there, bringing thousands of people berry-eating pleasure. 
It is so busy this time of year. But we spend more time together as a family than ever. It's not always easy: Dar puts in looooong hours. It helps though, be see how much Fee enjoys the farm, & to be involved a little bit & to see very step of the process.

Hope you enjoyed this post. Again, I'd to answer any questions you have!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

farmlife issue no. 11

Have you ever wondered what it's like to live on an Oregon berry farm? It's farming like it used to be-lots of hand labor-& so interesting. I took my camera out in the field last week & tried to capture a little of the atmosphere of blueberry harvest. It doesn't quite capture the adrenaline & pure craziness of the farm this time of year, but it's a little glimpse. 
As if the harvest itself weren't crazy enought, the weather's been like an obstinate child: it's been excessively hot, raining, cool, and hailing. Not a nice relaxing year. The farmers have been biting their nails over labor issues & fresh market berry prices already. Now the weather's giving them fits!
 They were checking to see if there was any hail damage on the berries. The photo below shows the hail piled up on the sawdust around the base of the plants.
 There was a little damage maybe, but the packers (the warehouses where they take the fresh berries to get sorted, cleaned up, & packaged for the grocery store shelves) are taking whatever the Sinn Farms can give them. I don't understand the market totally (or even moderately), but it's an uncertain one. Fresh berries don't keep long. Plans & packers can change multiple times a day. An early year like this one was means that strawberries are still getting picked, & the labor isn't there. There are days that the blueberries need to get picked tomorrow, and they're not sure if their picking crew is going to show up. They need a hundred pickers, ideally, to get the job done on time. Scrounging up a crew of 100 if yours doesn't show isn't an option.

The picking crew showed up this day: there were 90 people out in the field, sorting off the ripe berries & leaving the green ones behind for another day. They work fast, because they are paid by the pound. A good blueberry picker can make $20/hour. It's a funny balance; the farmers, the pickers, & the packers. One of Dar's brothers is working in the packing industry this summer, so we get all the perspectives. The pickers are treated very fairly & have options of who they want to pick for. They shop around for the best fields. When the berries started turning blue, it's a common sight to see van loads of them cruising around the country, scoping out the best fields!
Almost all pickers work under a contractor these days. A few years ago, Tom was still calling all the pickers & coordinating the time, day, place. If it rained, he called all of them at 5 am & canceled picking for the day. We weighed all the pounds they'd picked & wrote out tickets to keep track of what they'd get paid. All the field sanitation, picking buckets & flats, & ferrying pallets of berries fell on us. A contractor means it's the contractor's business now. Tom & Dar still are out in the field overseeing, but a lot of the managing & detail work is off their shoulders. It's brought a new set of issues, but it's the way it's done now. I don't think it will ever go back. 
This is the father of the contractor: it's easy to spot them because they're duded up.
The pickers are usually dressed warmly with hats & a lot of the women wear bandanas over their faces. 
They have buckets clipped onto belts so they can use both hands to strip off the ripe berries. Since they are paid by the pound, they work really fast & don't waste any time. Mariachi music is usually floating through the air, along with what sounds like light-hearted bantering. (I don't understand Spanish. Wish I did!) A whole air of festivity comes along with the pickers. It's hard, dirty work, but they don't seem to mind it too much. Their whole culture is very festive & together oriented. Sometimes I want to know what they think of us, the "owners". Do they think we are spoiled & rich, that we don't have to do any hard work? Do they disdain us? Or try to cheat us when they can because they are trying to even out the playing field? I hope not. They seem to respect us. I'm starting to recognize a few from previous years, & there's a sense of teamwork. We couldn't do it without them, & without us, they wouldn't have a job. 

After they get enough buckets full, they bring them to a station where they are weighed, dumped into flats, & briefly sorted. They pull out green berries, leaves & stems. Then they are put on pallets.

The full pallets are then loaded into a refrigerated truck, or onto one of the farm's trucks (some of the packers leave refrigerated trucks on site, some require the farmer to haul his own berries in). 
Before the contractor's, taco trucks drove around the countryside, pulling into fields at lunchtime (9-10 am for the pickers). It was one of my favorite parts about harvest! Authentic adobada tacos...mmm. Now, the contractor brings his own taco van. His wife has a grill in the back of her van that she warms the tortillas on & coolers full of meat. 

There's usually a spicy carrot salad, onions, cilantro, limes, & sauces to deck out the tacos. I love them. It's one of the few foods I can equal Dar's eating in. I don't know if I'll ever be able to eat tacos like this without a lingering sense of the hectic, yet exciting feel of harvest time. 

Harvest time is so busy. It is sunrise to past sundown days. The pickers usually quit in the afternoon, especially if it's hot, but that means Dar has loads of berries to drive in to the packers & the lines there can be long. Then it's cleaning up & getting ready for the next day. At 8 pm, he's out getting the blackberry picking crew going. Life is one big blur for him. For Fee & I, we try to get out and see him when we can. We eat lunch with him everyday at the farm. We ride along when he takes loads of berries in. We take snacks out to the night crew.

There are days I resent how much time the farm takes from us. And yet, it is our livelihood. And there is a satisfaction in seeing all the ripe, beautiful berries coming in by the tens of thousands of pounds. Dar loves what he does, & that goes a long way. And we can always come out to the farm to snatch a moment or two. (Sometimes it's just a glimpse.) Unlike other jobs, we can be a small part of the farm. We can be involved, even if it's just by watching from the sidelines. 

So there you are; a little glimpse into our crazy life of harvest.

 Is there something else you're wondering about harvest, or questions I didn't answer? I'd love to answer them! Berry harvest really is cool, & I'm still in awe that this is where I'm at. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Anniversary #3

Three years.  It feels good & right. There’s been change & growth. Dar feels comfortable telling me his opinions & I have learned to keep mine inJ. (Both in moderation, of course.) We have added Fiona to start our family & she is pure joy & entertainment. I’ve accepted that June was maybe not the best time for a berry farmer to get married. Celebrating our anniversary is a far cry from the luxurious plantation house & amazing food of our Charleston honeymoon. Our third anniversary was tacos from a taco truck, & a few hours without Fee.
Don’t feel sorry for me, though. We did sneak away for a few days last month. Central Oregon in May is not too shabby.  (At this point, anywhere without Fee would have been not too shabby! It was the first time we left her overnight since she’d been born!)
We spent most of one day driving over the mountains to central Oregon & then on a hike we found in the guide book we’d brought along. We haven’t done much hiking since we got married, so it was fine to break out of the norm. 
On our way in, while bouncing over back roads, Dar stopped the truck to point this little guy out! ( I thought I’d left all those in California!) He cut off the rattle to give to Riley. I kept one eye on the ground our whole hike, needless to say.

We hiked across the brow of a dry, windswept ridge & then down into a canyon. There was a little spring-fed stream we hiked beside down in the canyon, & it was a nice respite of green & shade compared to the initial ridge we’d started on. Lots of wildflowers & soaring rock walls towered around us.

Eventually the hike led us to where the little stream, which had become a decent little river, met the Deschutes River. It was impressive for what we saw when we first started: it looked like a barren wasteland & was hard to imagine the roaring river & large rock formations we’d see further down the trail. 
There is a spot where you have to ford the creek. It was a little over a foot deep & cold, but it felt good after our hike down the sandy switchbacks to get to the bottom!
(The hike is called Alder Springs, FYI, & is maybe 10 miles out of Sisters, although it feels a lot farther because of the back road access. It took us about 3 hours to do the 6 mile hike, but we lollygagged quite a bit.) 

I thoroughly enjoyed hiking with Dar. Especially without Fee. It is a rare day when she’s not stealing our attention-it felt so strange not to have her there! 

The rest of our trip we spent exploring the little town of Sisters. Latigo is a perfect date night eatery! A little spendy, but for special occasions, I highly recommend it. I had “duck breast seared in a miso marinade”. That kind of placeJ. I enjoyed my duck, btw.

We drove over to Bend as well, & walked an easy footpath trail along Benham Falls. It would be a good hike for kids. Relatively flat & not too close to any scary edges or water. 

I am thankful for where we are. Year three. It is pretty amazing to look back & see the relationship that’s been built through tough times & misunderstandings, flashes of pure sacrificial love, & an ever-growing understanding of eachother. I used to worry about marriage-how did one stay happy with one person for an entire lifetime? What if you suddenly met someone else that you connected with better, that was on the same wavelength as you? And I realize now; there probably are some men out there that would understand certain aspects of me better. But nothing, nothing, can replace the slow, day by day building of a relationship. It is such a beautiful thing, to be with one person, learning every little quirk about them & choosing to love them when it isn’t easy to. Love is more beautiful as it ages, I’ve come to find.