Roots and Branches: There is no masking care

Farming is an honorable profession that can be immensely rewarding on one hand or exceedingly costly on the other, depending on often uncontrollable factors. I am reminded of the decades-old television commercial where the smirking actress says, “It’s not right to fool with Mother Nature.” Either we are getting our comeuppance for fooling with Mother Nature as of late, or she is fooling with us.

This has been a noteworthy year in terms of learning how to deal with the idiosyncrasies of climate change and our inability to control much that “she” has offered. We have learned that we can still set a large crop of cherries and pears after an extremely long and cold winter, a summer of sustained high temperatures and little, if any, measurable rainfall. Unfortunately, all indications are that that the return on the investment in this year’s cherry crop will not cover the expenses. This is a result of another one of those uncontrollable factors, an unpredictable cherry market, one that fluctuates daily much like the stock market. Yet another disappointing year for the cherry farmers in the valley, many of whom left their crop hanging last year in response to a poor market in a futile attempt to reduce their losses.

We look to find a silver lining in the low returns predicted for our beautiful cherries, a seemingly unfathomable occurrence given the price of cherries consumers were asked to pay at the grocery store. Besides the substantial cost of raising a bumper crop of cherries, the farmers and workers have contributed their blood, sweat and tears throughout the entire year. Another loss takes its toll on the farmer’s spirit as well.

We find some solace in the knowledge that the farm families who work with us in this honorable profession will at least have substantially higher paychecks throughout the months of harvest. Sadly, the difficulties our farm families are facing in the current political and social environment will not be alleviated by a slightly larger paycheck. That will take a significant investment in social capital from all of us, but something that is readily available if we simply choose to take action.

We are in the thick of pear harvest right now, battling the ash filled air, dust filled orchards and oppressive heat that seems to weaken our spirits. While Bartlett harvest preceded the raging fires to the west, the winter pear harvest of D’Anjous, Bosc and Forelles is upon us in full force. We tried waiting out the smoky conditions the Eagle Creek fire blew our way, hoping to avoid intolerable working conditions for anyone having to be outdoors performing demanding physical labor. All who have ever picked pears will understand how physically demanding the job is. Bags of fruit weigh upwards of 60 pounds, imbedding the straps in your shoulders, straining the lower back as you try to maintain your balance. You must climb up and down a ladder set at a 75 percent angle much of the time, continually reaching and stretching to grasp the fruit nestled beneath the branches or proudly swinging from the tree tops. The ladders are continually repositioned around the tree and carried up the tree rows throughout the day making for an extreme aerobic workout at least eight hours each day.

This year the fruit is releasing easily, perhaps because of the picking postponement or perhaps because of the larger size, with the clusters pushing the weakest to the ground. Regardless, the rows are littered with a bounty of pears, another hit to the bottom line. The thump of falling pears awakens you at night, alerting you to a breeze that might move the fire and smoke out of the valley but reminding you of increased loss of harvest heading to market. It is painful seeing so much beautiful fruit on the ground.

Even more distressing is seeing pickers with masks hung around their necks, rather than secured over their nose and mouth. It has taken a considerable amount of effort to convince them to wear masks while out in the orchard, but after wearing one for a few days I understand the preference for an ineffective bandana worn across the nose and mouth. It is far more comfortable, and psychologically you feel as if you are getting more air into your lungs and keeping the ash out. Unfortunately, that is not true.

I have been on the Hyster each day helping haul and stack the bins of fruit through the dense ash and dust filled orchard roads. I am not complaining. I have the luxury of being able to choose to help rather than having to work out of necessity. I can return to my air-conditioned home periodically, and breath air that is filtered. Even with these optimum conditions my eyes sting, my nostrils are filled with a sticky black goo and my lips are parched grey after just a few hours work. I cannot fathom how the farm families keep working each day. Yet they ask about the fire fighters who are in the thick of the conflagration, concerned about their welfare, considering themselves far more fortunate. Caring for others is what sustains us each day.

I am almost embarrassed to admit we slipped away from the smoke-filled valley Sunday morning and headed to Salem to watch our granddaughter Aunika play softball. We knew we would be escaping the dust and ash that others were working in, but relieved that it would be only a half day on Sunday and the predicted rain would keep them out of the orchard on Monday as well.

What a great physical and mental relief to sit on the bleachers and watch a couple of softball games. We relaxed and inhaled the clear air of Salem. (Never thought I would be saying that!) It was a refreshing morning, our granddaughter made some terrific plays, her team continued undefeated, and thankfully no one was injured. We couldn’t have asked for a more energizing break in this challenging harvest season. With faces freed from the bondage of masks, we laughed aloud at the menial complaints of spectators about the dust kicked up by the umpire’s broom or the dark rain clouds gathering overhead. Put into perspective, this was paradise.

We laughed a lot on Sunday. It was good for the spirit, the lungs and the eyes. As we returned home around Mount Hood, we saw the oppressive layer of ash and smoke still cloaking the valley floor. The promised rain stopped somewhere south of Parkdale on Sunday, but by Monday morning a drizzle kept everyone out of the orchard for a much-needed reprieve.

I think I will bring a little more laughter to the farm when harvest restarts on Tuesday. Maybe draw animal faces on our masks, and institute a mask burning ceremony when the fire is finally put out. Farming is an honorable profession, but only as honorable as the way we treat one another and the land on which we live.

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