What pick-your-own apple orchards tell us about the American economy.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Oct. 8 2007 3:02 PM

Rotten to the Core

What pick-your-own apple orchards tell us about the American economy.

Autumn has returned, and with it comes what Robert Frost called the "rumbling sound of load on load of apples coming in." In the Northeast, many of these apples come from pick-your-own farms, where hordes of visitors pay for the opportunity to harvest fruit themselves. In an October 2006 article, reprinted below, Daniel Gross argues that this tradition is more idiotic than idyllic, representing American tendencies to esteem overconsumption and balk at nature that's a little too natural.

Apples.
Is apple-picking a waste of time and money?

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a poignant article (subscription required) about anguished fruit farmers in California. Because of a crackdown on illegal immigrants, they couldn't find workers willing to pick their pears, even at $150 per day. And as a result, perfectly good fruit rotted in the fields.

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Perhaps the California farmers, who depend on migrant Mexican labor, have got the wrong business model. Instead of paying workers to pick their fruit, they should try another strategy: making customers pay to pick the fruit themselves. Savvy farmers all over the country have discovered a practice that might not work as a nationwide agricultural policy, but that has allowed some economically inefficient orchards to thrive: Encourage yuppies and their progeny to come pick your fruit—they'll pay handsomely for the privilege, buy more than they'd ordinarily consume, and then shell out for all sorts of other value-added products. It's the best use of child labor since Manchester's early 19th-century textile mills.

Apple picking is a cherished rite of fall, a wholesome and fun family outing, a throwback to a simpler time when people weren't so disconnected from the production of their sustenance. I look forward to it every year. It's also a wasteful scam.

We've been educated (or bullied, depending on your outlook) by foodies like Alice Waters and Dan Barber to adopt the European concept of terroir—the best stuff to consume is the stuff grown in closest proximity. For people in the Northeast, that's fine in the summer, when the Union Square greenmarket bursts with locally grown exotic greens, yellow squash, and heirloom tomatoes of such flavor (and cost) as to make a gourmand weep.

But in the fall, while the region's landscape lights up with foliage, the farm stands' color palette becomes more drab: potatoes, root vegetables, pumpkins, gourds, and, of course, apples. And so, to the pick-your-own orchards we go.

Silverman's Farm, the farm I frequent in Fairfield County, Conn., is a pick-your-own farm for Type A's: a high-volume, diversified joint. It attracts pickers from New Haven, New York, and all points in between. (You can rusticate and still be back to Park Slope in time for dinner.) Several tractors take turns hauling wagons with families up the slopes, and then back to the large store, where pumpkins, jams, ciders, pies, and flowers are sold. After jostling through the crowds—gaining access to the choice apple trees and a quick checkout lane requires the same level of competitiveness, foresight, and sharp elbows as winning admission to top nursery schools—it's across the street to the petting zoo for the exquisite pleasure of having llamas and goats lick pellets out of your hands.

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