2009-10-01 / Local & State

Newsman Learns Firsthand To Handpick Peaches

By Steve Marroni THE (HANOVER) EVENING SUN

BIGLERVILLE, Pa. (AP) – Most of us are not used to seeing a time of day when those who pick fruit during the harvest go to work. It’s a time that guys in the Army call “o-dark thirty.’’

But folks working in agriculture are regular witnesses to the sun poking up over the hills and fields.

Fine, I can handle getting up early to pick peaches. But then, driving to Biglerville, about 30 miles southwest of Harrisburg and less than 10 miles north of Gettysburg, a raindrop splattered on my car’s windshield.

“Shoot.’’ Only I didn’t say shoot. And the sky opened up.

But peaches need to be picked when they’re ready. And when peaches are ready, that does not necessarily coincide with when you’re ready, explained Kay Hollabaugh of Hollabaugh Bros. Fruit Farms and Market.

When apples are ripe, there’s a little more flexibility when you can take them off of the tree. Peaches, on the other hand, are a little more delicate, and have to be picked, shipped and sold just before they’re ripe. Rain or shine.

As I drove closer, the rainfall became a monsoon.

Just peachy.

The third generation of Hollabaughs is now starting to take over operations at the farm, which was founded in 1955 by twin brothers Donald and Harold Hollabaugh.

The family farms on about 400 acres, and grows many different fruits and vegetables, including asparagus, blueberries, apricots, strawberries, plums, pears and, of course, apples and peaches.

With so many acres to pick, it takes plenty of coordination in planting and harvesting, and the work of a large team of migrant workers.

Hector Mateos was my guide for the morning. He’s been working with the Hollabaughs for five years, and is becoming more of an expert each season.

He patiently waited for me to get into the rain gear Bruce Hollabaugh, Kay Hollabaugh’s son, provided. It was a big yellow suit, making me look more like I should be selling frozen, beerbattered fish than picking peaches. The pants came with attached suspenders. I’ve never been good with suspenders, and could never properly thread straps through loops to tighten and loosen them. It’s not easy to pick peaches, as I found out later, with your pants falling down.

The sun was barely on the rise when I finally got my rain suit together. As patient as he was, I could see in his face Mateos was ready to get out in the field and get started.

He walked briskly to a green bus, and I hobbled behind, holding up my pants and shielding my notebook from the rain. I jumped on the bus, packed with workers quietly looking out of the windows at the pouring rain. They all likely knew what Mateos told me. The same thing his boss had said.

We pick peaches, no matter what.

Just peachy.

I never really thought a whole lot about picking peaches before trying it for myself. It never sounded like it could be that complicated. Pick a peach off a tree and, well, that’s it. A onestep process.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Mateos and I joined the other 20 or so migrant workers, most of whom were Mexican or Haitian.

Bruce Hollabaugh had driven a tractor out to the peach field, and dropped off a pallet of wooden crates. All of us grabbed one crate each. I strapped the crate around my shoulder, and followed Mateos out to the rows of peach trees, one hand on my crate, and the other hitching up my rain pants.

“This one’s good,’’ he said, plucking a peach off of a tree. It had a nearly full color. Not quite ripe for the eating, but ripe for the picking. Big and round, flush with red and peach color, and not green.

I pulled a peach off of the tree, and showed it to Mateos.

“How’s this one?’’ I asked.

“Too green,’’ Bruce Hollabaugh said as he walked down the row of trees. Mateos smiled in agreement.

The rain beat down, and workers in similar yellow suits quickly picked peaches on down the rows of trees.

I was a lot slower, bending down and reaching deep inside the tree, looking for the perfect peach. As Mateos showed me, I gently set each peach in the crate, lining them up in neat rows.

It’s a lot of bending, stooping, and picking. One worker a few trees down bent too far, and dumped out a nearly full crate.

The rest of the workers erupted in laughter. That worker laughed too, embarrassed. Boy, I’m glad that wasn’t me.

My crate got heavier and heavier. They get to be up to 40 pounds when full of peaches. Mateos and I lugged our crates to the tractor, and set them on the pallet on top of another neat row of crates. A pile of empty crates awaited us, and it was back to the mud, rain and peach trees. A process that repeats day after day and season after season.

There wasn’t a whole lot of talking that day. Mateos said a lot of days, they’ll joke around and laugh. But with rain beating down, it was hard to hear anyone else, and they just wanted to get the work done for the day to get out of the rain.

But when they do speak, a flurry of languages are spoken in the fields – Spanish, Creole and English.

“We understand each other,’’ Mateos said.

They pick up a few phrases in each other’s languages. Some, like Mateos, are multi-lingual. They work together, he said, and the language differences are a challenge that’s easily overcome.

The bigger challenges, they say, are making sure they get out there, and, working together, get the fruit off the tree and to the markets. Even if they’re slowed down by the rain, or a reporter who can’t keep his rain pants up.

We got back on the bus, and headed back for coffee and doughnuts. Work was over for the day. But guess what. The season’s early apples are waiting to be picked.

Good luck, folks. It was fun, but the next time I pick a peach, it will be out of a bin at the store.

But I’ll never forget how to pick out the perfect peach.

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