Left in Andover: Apple picking plants seeds for lifetime of growth

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In 1978 my mother, Miriam Leader, wrote, “I search the reddened cheeks of a Northern Spy, my daughter’s cheeks rosy as she picked it … I am becoming greedy of those times.”

I have no desire to reprise my time as a professional, seasonal orchard worker throughout my 20s in New Hampshire and Vermont. However, I am extremely proud of the apple picking and tree pruning that I and my highly disciplined cohort of Greenleaf Harvesters Guild workers performed.

The Guild was the brainchild of Arthur Harvey, Gandhian scholar, antiquarian bookman and vegetarian social activist based in South Acworth, N.H.

The status quo regarding apple orchard labor, New Hampshire, 1977.

Arthur identified seasonal orchard work as healthy, remunerative bread labor both for himself as well as the extended group of idealistic young people who came under his sphere of influence. Securing the confidence of several different orchardists, mostly in New Hampshire, he contracted for over a decade to provide a dependable workforce of pickers and pruners.

In whipping a rag-tag score of intellectuals, hippies, poets, potters and social activists into an efficient, dedicated work crew, Arthur Harvey defied the odds. As a survivor, I can testify that the training I received doing this work has stood me well throughout my adult life.

Dairy, maple and apples have reigned triumvirate over Vermont agriculture for at least the last hundred years. The University of Vermont, in it’s “Strategic Planning for the Vermont Apple Industry, Planning for Success in the 21st Century” states:

“Local labor availability has long been problematic for fruit growers. Since the 1960s, apple growers in Vermont and other states have used the federal H2A program to access laborers, primarily from Jamaica, who provide this critical labor supply.”

Arthur Harvey pictured in article about Greenleaf Harvesters Guild, 1977.

In my early 20s, picking apples at Gould Hill Farm in Contoocook, N.H., I wrote this postcard home:

“I’m on Arthur’s other crew on exchange for a week, thru next Wednesday. Guess what? yesterday and the day before I picked 90 bushels a day. I just stood there all day and moved my hands without stopping from 8 in the morn til 6:45 literally when it got dark.”

“This morning the apples are frozen solid however, so we might not be able to pick, and it might snow ‘cuz it’s cloudy. Pretty heavy (sic) for the apple harvest!!! I’ll be back with my regular crew in Greenville next week. Love, Susie”

“One orchard owner in Cornwall,” state Rep. Carolyn Partridge wrote in the Bennington Banner in 2011, “makes it a policy to hire any American who asks for a job.” She continues: “Unfortunately, he reports that most American workers do not come back after their first day of work.”

My comrades and I reappeared for work each morning because we lived, breathed, ate and slept in a disciplined seasonal work camp/commune-like arrangement in  bunkhouses, right at the orchard.

Bunkhouse living worked because being a Greenleaf Harvester entailed pledging to refrain from all sex, drugs and alcohol for the duration of the season, regardless of one’s habits the rest of the year. We were also non-conformists, united philosophically around the issues defining our ‘60s generation, a tribe that reconvened annually to renew political and social commitments as well as pocketbooks. Although Arthur, a war tax resister, declined to report our wages, Greenleaf Harvesters did tithe, voting at the end of the season what cause would be the beneficiary.

Our kitchens were strictly vegetarian, we either took turns or paid someone to cook dinners. Breakfast was DIY and lunch was generally PBJ and apples — all you could eat! Apple — and pruning season for that matter — was a highly regimented four-to-six week stint for us free-thinking baby boomers, but well-worth any sacrifice of individual freedom.

Bunkhouse scene on the Scott Farm in Dummerston. John Specker, fiddle player, stands far right.

With no extra outside expenses, I could hitchhike out of the orchard at season’s end, having socked away several thousand dollars, almost enough money to support myself the rest of the year: I did not own a car, no one seemed particularly concerned about health insurance in that era, and I either lived rent-free in a cabin on our land or worked on a communal farm for my room and board.

Toward the end of my picking career I worked with an off-shoot group of fellow apple pickers at Fred Holbrooke’s Scott Farm in Dummerston. Although informed by the work ethic of Greenleaf Harvesters Guild, this was a more loosely organized crew of peers that serendipitously included numerous old-time fiddle players.

Most mornings at Scott Farm, we gathered ’round as our fiddlers fortified us with a couple of tunes before we filed forth together into the frosty September dawn. Dandling elegant pointed ladders through the itchy wet grass, we made our way through the orchard bundled up in layers of wool. Who would want to do this alone?

The author with her original apple bucket in front of her Cortland tree, which she tries to keep pruned, in Andover.

I wrote:

“Northern Spy, Mac, Red Delicious, we fill our buckets again and again, emptying them gently into wooden bins. Expertly, we skim the topmost layers, color picking the choice fruit at treetop where it ripens first. We turn ambidextrous, hands fly, twist, separate stem from branch, bend, re-place ladders, we climb, again and again.”

“We yell companionably from tree to tree, in endless conversations, as we keep furious pace harvesting the endless leafy aisles. By noon, we are sweating, stripped down to tank tops and shorts. Ardently, I pick 100 bushels in a day. I am elated, intoxicated with my own muscle. I am mighty, indefatigable.”

So much for youth!

In any conversation around a required national year of service for youth, I highly recommend orchard work as a testing ground.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Susan, What a fascinating look into the ’60’s! Do you know that there are still itinerant fruit pickers based in Quaker City, in Unity (south of Claremont)? Many of the pickers are your age, and are still supporting themselves, and their basic lifestyle – year round. They also prune. You might want to meet Jenny Wright and talk to her, or even pick for a day! I can give you contact info for Jenny if you wish, just e-mail me at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

  2. Susan, the more I read your articles, the more I realize that you and I are kindred spirits. Thank you for this delicious article !