A Hawke's Bay apple orchardist said recently that anyone with two arms and two legs could walk in and he'd hire them. So Linda Hall walked in, and Ricky Doran, Orchard Manager for Satellite Johnny Appleseed did. She reports from the field.

It was 6.50am and I was starting to panic. I had been told to be at a packing shed in Elwood Road, Hastings at 7am.

I threw some food in a bag, grabbed my keys and jumped in the car. Luckily I live close to my destination and I was pretty sure no one would be standing at the gate clocking me in.

I arrived on time and was greeted by my manager for the day Ricky Doran. He introduced me to my supervisor Whare.

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Ricky then took me through health and safety and rules and regulations. Although the list was long he made it easy to understand and happily answered my questions. Around us people were getting ready to head out to work.

About 20 minutes later we set off to an orchard in Ruahapia Rd. "You will need your car. That's your office for the day," Ricky said.

There was no mucking around when we arrived,.

Linda Hall stem picking apples. Photo/Warren Buckland
Linda Hall stem picking apples. Photo/Warren Buckland

I was introduced to a few of the pickers who ranged in age from 16 years to 72 years, and then Whare lined up some apples on the bonnet of a ute and showed us what colour we should be looking for when picking.

"Nothing with too much green on it and no sunburnt apples."

I was also shown how to stem pick and given a pair of little snipers.

Ricky demonstrated the way to pick the Ambrosia apples so the stem stayed on. Then we had to snip the stem so when it went into the bin it didn't mark other apples.

This wasn't as straight forward as I thought it was going to be. Ricky also showed me how to stand the ladder —"Nice and straight so you could rest a cup of tea of the steps."
I was given a fruit picking bag that went over my head and rested on my shoulders.
"There's your bin, off you go."

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So off I went. The trees were laden, close together and not very tall. In fact I could reach the top of most of them which was lucky because I wasn't that keen on going up and down the ladder. I wasn't having much luck with the stems. Every second apple I picked had no stem. I filled my first bag and knew I had to be careful putting them in the bin so I bent down as far as I could and gently let them out.

Oh dear! They made a terrible noise as I couldn't stop the fast flow.

In an instant Whare was beside me. "They will likely all be bruised."

Oh oh. He showed me a different way to do it by holding the bag against the side of the bin and slowly moving backwards.

So back I wen to fill my bag. The sun started to come out so I put my sunglasses on.
Whare was back. "Are they prescription glasses?" No. "We are sorry, because we are colour picking you can't wear them."

It was fine really as I had a cap on and it wasn't glarey in the trees.

After I had about 10 bags of fruit in the bin a quality control person came along and started picking apples out here an there and marking them. She said she was looking for blemishes, bugs and any with too little or too much colour.

She said a lot of my apples didn't have stems.

So I asked for help. The foreman, Ed, showed me how to cup and twist. It worked. I still had apples without stems but my hit rate was far better.

Picking in the row next to me was Hauraki. We chatted away on and off all day.
He told me that he hadn't worked for a while but decided that he needed to do something and he was loving getting a pay packet at the end of the week.

By morning tea I was ready for a break.

I love the way they have their breaks. Whare calls out "SMOKO" and everyone gathers around the back of the ute for coffee, tea or some delicious water (there's no chlorine in this water). Attached to the water tank is a bottle of sunscreen for everyone to help themselves to. Someone had a bag of lollies they shared.

There were people from all over the world in this picking gang including England, South Africa and Chile. It was really interesting listening to them talk about their journeys.

After 15 minutes we were back into it. I loved being out in the open air listening to the tractor going up and done the rows moving bins, the birds singing, people chatting and music drifting across the orchard. No ringing phones and not a cellphone or keyboard in sight.

I do have to admit that I didn't like the ladders. Mainly because it slowed me down and i was on a mission.

I got an incredible sense of achievement when I looked back along the row at the harvested trees. I was determined to fill that bin and by lunch time I had done it.

I had a visit from John Paynter, chairman of the Yummy Fruit Company and the man who started it all.

He told me that currently they were employing around 700 people.

"We do use RSE workers, without them we wouldn't get our crops picked. But the majority of our workers are locals and their wages go back into the community."

Thee is plenty of opportunities to climb the ladder in this industry and Ricky says plenty of people have done it. "For every gang there is a supervisor, foreman and quality control."

After lunch I started my second bin. I was nervous about putting the first bagful in. I lent down as far as I could and tried ever so slowly let the apples out of the bottom of the bag. There was noise. Whare yelled out "Who is that". I called back. "Not telling".

Apparently that noise is called thunder.

By now my back was a tad sore. Ricky said it usually takes pickers about a week to get ground fit. A bit like going back to the gym after weeks of doing nothing. My arms were fine and I actually enjoyed being on my feet all day.

Hauraki told me to take it easy and that he would get the apples at the top of the trees. He was very cool.

These gangs are working 10 hour days, six days a week at the moment to get the harvest in. I knocked off at 4pm. Hauraki and Whare helped me fill my second bin. I was really proud of myself.

So I worked 9 hours and would have been paid $162 plus 8 per cent holiday pay.

In the block we were picking it was $18 per hour for two bins, if you picked three bins it would be $20 per hour (and one of the pickers in my gang was on his third at afternoon tea) four bins $22 per hour, so on and so on. Some of the RSEs can pick six bins putting them on $26 per hour.

If people can't full two bins they would stay on the minimum hourly rate. That's pretty good money and if i can pic two bins in a shift I'm sure most people can.

With the government restructuring secondary tax it may just be a way for people to make some extra money and help harvest the Bay's bountiful crops.

I thoroughly enjoyed — it was satisfying to see the trees striped and the bin filling with delicious Hawke's Bay fare.