LAKE CITY (AP) -- When apples hang thick and heavy from trees in the Pepin Heights orchard, Jose Garcia knows that means two things:
First, long days getting crews to pick the fruit, delivering 20-bushel bins of apples to the packing house, packing them and getting the fruit to wholesalers.
Second, it's time to catch up on who got married, who had babies and who died in the Mexican village where he was born and raised.
Garcia is labor coordinator for Pepin Heights, the state's largest grower of apples. His job is to find laborers and get them in the right place at the right time. Some of those picking apples are from Vaqueteros, Mexico, where he grew up. When they arrive, he gets to hear the village goings on. "They say what they have been doing over there," he said. "(You) get excited seeing people where you came from."
For the Plainview man, it's the best time of the year, a combination of picking the fruits of a year of work and old-home week.
Garcia, 30, came to the area 11 years ago after picking fruit in other states. He said he left his home village when he was 15 and worked in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. When picking oranges in Florida, he got a call from a friend who asked him to come to Pepin Heights to pick apples. "You go to Florida, it's too hot," he said.
Others, however, do move around, often driving in the same circuit each year, thinning sugar beets in Colorado in early summer, picking apples in this region in the fall and then maybe returning to Mexico to work on their own land, Garcia said.
In this region, the picking season goes from mid-August to early November, with the peak weeks now. After that, trees need pruning beginning in February and going into late spring. In midsummer, there is more work mowing grass and keeping weeds at bay. There is always something to do, Garcia said.
Besides being a coordinator, he is also a teacher, showing new workers how to correctly pick apples. "I didn't know anything when I start," he said. "I was learning one year after another, you get more ideas."
In a tour of one of the orchards overlooking Lake Pepin, he encountered Francisco Cambambia from Vera Cruz, Mexico, a veteran picker who said he came north for the work and money.
Cambambia, a member of one of three seven-member crews, showed how he carefully, but quickly, examines each apple for ripeness and bruises or other damage. He twists off acceptable ones, being careful to leave the stems on so the apples don't dry out, and puts them into a padded basket slung across his chest. When it's full, he walks to a bin on a flatbed trailer and gently puts in the bag, releases two ropes that hold the cloth bottom in place and lets the apples slide out.
When done, Cambambia goes back and begins refilling the bag.
The trick, Garcia said, is to move steadily. You burn out too quickly if you hurry. A crew can pick about 15 trees in an hour; they are paid on how many apples they pick.
When they have to pick apples higher on the tree, they use three-legged stepladders for the middle part and a taller, two-legged ladder for top fruit. With that job, Cambambia said, he has to be careful because if he lets his mind wander, he can fall.
"It's a hard job to do," Garcia said.
Each crew has its own personality, he said. Cambambia's crew likes to joke, rib each other, chat a lot as they work, he said. Others are quieter.
Pepin Heights, which began in 1949 and is one of more than a dozen orchards in the region, needs seasonal workers like Cambambia since few others are willing to pick the fruit, said Dennis Courtier, orchard owner.
Courtier looks forward to the workers' arrival each summer and has gone to visit them and their villages in Mexico. He's even learned Spanish and helps pay for workers to learn English, he said. When Courtier talks with Hispanics, it's often in a sort of mixed English-Spanish they call Spanglish.
Like Garcia, Courtier said it takes a certain touch and skill to pick apples correctly. "A bad crew can destroy a crop," he said.
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