Watch the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Replay in California

It’s another sign of the times when the weekend fruit picker population is doubled by people hard hit by the economy, looking to save money on food costs.

After driving through miles of undulating brown hills studded with oak trees, passing mile upon mile of horse ranches, rusted out cars, and abandoned mobile homes, you come to bucolic Brentwood, the fruit capital of Northern California. There, thousands of families harvesting ripe Bing cherries and peaches at the wholesale price of $1.50 a pound, fruit that normally costs $4 a pound at the supermarket. Anything you eat in the orchard is free.

All a great deal if you don’t mind having purple fingertips at the end of the day. Just watch out for the cars pulled over on the side of the road on the way home, their occupants puking out all their excess cherries. In a nod to the 21st century, growers in this “Grapes of Wrath” industry compile lists of email addresses, and notify their itinerant fruit pickers which crops are ready for harvest via the Internet. Also on the calendar this season are grapes, apples, apricots, plums, loquats, nectarines, mandarin oranges, and wheel chair accessible walnuts (?).

Farmers have become particularly dependent on weekend pickers because of the declining numbers of the traditional migrant population from Mexico, many of whom are here illegally. A slowing US economy coupled with rising standards of living has prompted many “paisanos” to go home. Since 2007, net immigration from Mexico has been zero. Manpower shortages are even more severe in Arizona, which has recently passed a series of harsh anti-immigrant measures. As a result, some of the more labor intensive crops, like lettuce and strawberries, are being left to rot in the field.

At the end of each harvest, professional crews sweep through and pick up what’s left, if the prices will bear it. If you wonder why we put up with the earthquakes, high taxes, gridlocked politics, and a non-functioning state government, this is the reason. By the way, does anyone know what to do with 25 pounds of cherries? Please send me your recipes.