Kids in the fields
Some 60 years ago, on very early summer mornings, a surprisingly heavy flow of traffic might have been seen on downtown McMinnville streets.
At the wheel of many of those vehicles were mama chauffeurs driving “picker” kids to the employment office in downtown McMinnville, where waiting buses took this labor force to the fields of Yamhill County row-crop farmers.
It was Yamhill County’s summer exodus to the fields. Among the workers were big and little school kids, who, as they laboriously picked, dreamed of the school clothes their earnings would buy.
Those children were not insignificant labor force. Yamhill County farmers depended on them. Alderman Farms, at its peak in the late 1960s, alone needed a workforce of thousands of kids and adults.
I was one of the early-hour chauffeurs in those days. And, because of the early hour, I was usually still in my housecoat, or night clothes, with hair in curlers. Always I fervently hoped in that attire, I would never sleepily run a stop sign and be asked to please step from my car by a polite policeman.
At about age 10, our son, Mitch, joined the workforce. Assuredly, we never suggested that he become a family wage earner — especially at that age. Rather, it was what most of the kids did. It was the “Yamhill County way.” Had Mitch stayed home, he would have had few playmates. Most of his buddies picked, too. It was the expected summer activity for kids — an opportunity for them to learn the joys of earning. Few other job opportunities for kids were then available.
But, those mornings when I left Mitch at the bus stop, I almost felt sorry to see my “little boy” trudging off to the fields. True, picking was suspended on rainy days, but temperatures some days might reach 100 degrees. I thought of that little kid out there in the field, with an aching back, rebellious knees, sore raw fingers and wondered what kind of parent would permit that.
During his day at work, I pictured him out in the fields and fervently hoped his row of strawberries would have berries big as plums to quickly fill carriers. I hoped he would not be scolded for not picking rows clean; or for having dirt or squishy berries in his pick. And, oh, how I hoped that he would not be fired for starting a strawberry fight.
Strawberry pickers earned about 25 to 30 cents for a six-box carrier. Depending on berry variety, a good picker might pick 15 to 20 carriers a day. Not many 10-year-olds did. I do not remember the amount of Mitch’s bring-home earnings, but I suspect that some days it was no more than a few dollars.
Yamhill County’s bean crop required more pickers than did strawberries, and provided higher earnings for pickers. Likewise, tall pole beans afforded a protective shield for kids’ shenanigans.
Beans were picked in buckets and then dumped into big burlap sacks to be taken to the weighing stations. At peak season, a good bean picker could perhaps pick 400 pounds a day. In the mid-1950s the pay was two and a half cents a pound.
These Blue Lake variety stringless beans were a principal crop at Alderman Farms, and at one time that huge agri-business was said to produce one percent of the U.S. crop. For several years they planted annually from 200 to 500 acres of pole beans, and a 1951 statistic noted that the yield from 200 acres was 2,000 tons, requiring 3,000 pickers.
These chauffeur moms, before even getting kids to the picker bus, probably had rushed to busily pack a lunch that would help their offspring cope with the day. I let Mitch pick what he wanted in his lunch and two of his choices always were a Twinkie, and a thermos bottle chock-a-block with ice, and filled with grape Kool-Aid.
Our refrigerator did not have a crushed ice dispenser, and chipping ice cubes with an ice pick into small enough pieces to feed into the thermos bottle mouth was slow going on those rushed mornings.
I tried, also, to put special treats in his lunch sack. Sometimes I’d write encouraging notes, or add little surprises. And each working day I hoped that on his arrival home, he’d rush in the door, beaming, because he’d picked an all-time high.
Some of these school-kid pickers, who went back summer after summer, learned of the gratification of “promotions” and received plum jobs driving tractors, water wagons, or moving irrigation pipe.
Mitch, who did not pick at Alderman Farms during his “picking career,” advanced to driving bus, and moving irrigation pipes — thereby receiving the princely wage of $1.10 an hour: a whopping $8.80 per eight-hour day — thereby becoming a teenage Warren Buffett.
And the last summer he worked, before starting college, on his final day he came home one proud kid. His boss presented him with a wonderful going-away gift: a hunting rifle to take on his fall Eastern Oregon hunting trip — for bagging his first buck.
Last week, Mitch and I reminisced about his experience as a kid picker. I asked if he dreaded those picking days. And he said that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world; that he learned some valuable lessons. He learned that to succeed in life you didn’t put green berries in the box. You learned that amount of effort expended resulted in commensurate return.
But change came to Yamhill County. Growers began switching from strawberries. Some opted for sweet corn. Pole beans began to be replaced by bush beans that could be machine harvested. Urie Alderman, dynamic head of Alderman Farms, pioneered bush bean plantings locally. Alderman died in 1964 at age 66, and in 1971 Alderman Farms was purchased by Carlton Nursery Company, Forest Grove, which specialized in trees and shrubs — not a crop that required hundreds of pickers.
And so, an era ended. It was an era that was marked by an unusual relationship between school kid pickers and Yamhill County row-crop growers.
Those pickers — and probably their parents — have been forever grateful to growers for providing an opportunity to learn about work ethic and satisfaction of earning.
And it is hoped, that despite strawberry fights and green berries in the bottom of boxes, the growers were grateful for that unusual labor force that helped get crops to market in timely fashion.
Summer, 2014, there will be no early morning McMinnville “traffic rush” of chauffeuring moms. But for many who were then participants, those experiences will be forever relived with poignant memories.
Elaine Rohse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.