I met this afternoon for a couple of hours with Ted Schmidt and his wife, Lois. They came to Yakima back in the late 1930s, early 1940s from the Midwest (North Dakota) – at different times but both families as a consequence of the Great Depression and the loss of family farms that followed. Ted was 13 when his family moved in 1939, and he bought his first orchard in 1952, getting his first crop in 1954. Shortly after, he and Lois were married.
Over time they have seen huge changes in the valley. They sold their orchard in the early 1990s after 40 years of tending it. Ted spoke of the change in the valley over an even greater period of time, starting with the first canals that were built that transformed the place from a desert of sagebrush and low grasses into orchard heaven. He said changes began in 1907, and the canals were built over time, including major projects during the work projects of the 1930s. When they first moved out, his father rented an orchard that he tended for only a year. He and his brother also “went out to work” the following years, picking and doing other work in the area’s orchards.
In the 1950s, schools would close for two weeks during the harvest. Many people who had other jobs would do a few hours a week as well. Labor was made up of a wide range of people. Some Native American labor and workers from the community. Workers from “Front Street” (the street in town that runs along the tracks and where the original packing houses were). They were mostly people who were homeless or living with alcoholism, prison release, etc. Finally, there were a number of migrant workers that would come just for the season. By the late 1960s to early 1970s, labor switched completely to Hispanic labor. “There were no illegals,” Ted said, who used that term consistently and was puzzled by the use of the word “undocumented.”
I asked what had caused the change, and the answer ranged: government regulation that limited child labor, people’s own expectations, the need for more consistent labor and a growing market. Every part of production translated into changes in labor: from switching from the original wooden boxes that he used the first few years to the large bins that have come to dominate. The former would be loaded into wagons or small trucks and then transferred to larger trucks to be brought to the packing houses. From what I could gather, now the bins are placed on the back of trucks and transferred directly that way to the packing houses, significantly reducing labor. Chemicals used, refrigeration, transportation and the ensuing growing market have also meant a stronger fruit that can last longer. With some astonishment Ted talked about the fact that apples from the previous year’s season are still being sold a year later and taste just as if they just came off the orchard. Early on – with cooling houses and some minimal refrigeration – three months would have been the limit and then the unsold fruit would be lost. He expressed astonishment about the idea of cherries being flown on airplanes to Japan – and wondered with a laugh what they must cost there!
I continue coming across a frustration on the part of growers with increased government intervention. Ted wondered – with the government telling growers what to do so much through regulation – whether we are still a free country at all.
When I asked Ted what he thought had caused the shift in the origin of the labor force, he indicated that “there are just a lot of people coming.” The ready availability of cheap labor has made the need of the other labor pools less. His wife’s sense was more complicated than that: a mix of a more reliable, more “professional” labor force than the mix of part-timers, school kids, and “Front Street” folks; cheaper labor and better options for groups that had done the work in an earlier generation. There was clearly a sense of loss of a way of life for both of them – in terms of the willingness of people to work hard, life as more simple and even more free. “I am glad I am out of it now,” Ted said, reflecting on how complex and demanding – and often separated from the actual production – the work has become.