Lessons From a 1970s Berry Picking Summer #23
By Lesley Fuller
No glamping here
I read recently about the world’s first raspberry-picking robot. Still in its trial period, and with development costs of £700,000, it looks set to become the future of fruit-picking.
Guided by sensors and 3D cameras, its gripper zooms in on ripe fruit using machine learning, and once fully operational, its developers say the robot’s gripper picks a raspberry in 10 seconds or less and drops it in a tray where the fruit gets sorted by maturity, before being moved into punnets, ready to be transported to supermarkets. And, since they don’t get tired, robots can pick for 20 hours a day.
So, why my interest in this? Well, it took me back to the early 1970s when I spent the summer before University, raspberry picking in Perthshire. I was with three school friends, and we were given the honour of setting up our tent on the front lawn of the farm, and given access to an outhouse with rudimentary washing and cooking facilities.
Glamping it was not! But at 17 we didn’t care, and after a few days working in the fields we, and our clothes were in need of a good wash. We did make the effort of driving to Perth one day a week to the slipper baths for a luxurious soak.
Our working day started at 5.30 a.m. when the tractor and trailer picked us up and took us up to the fields. The seasonal workers who travelled round the various farms had already set up camp near the berries and they worked in families, bringing their own empty barrels which they filled as a communal effort.
Picking began at 6 a.m. and the process involved tying a “luggy” (a small metal bucket) round your waist, and once filled, decanting the contents into a larger metal bucket. Once full the large bucket was weighed, and payment was made per 1lb of raspberries.
My over-riding memory of this part of the task was proudly taking my first “full” large metal bucket up to the tractor for its weigh-in.
Nae lass, that's nae full...
Full to the brim with beautifully picked soft ripe raspberries, my bubble was quickly burst when the farmer shook his head and then stuck his foot into the bucket and squashed the fruit down to the bottom. My full bucket was reduced to a few inches of raspberry pulp at the bottom – exactly what was needed for jam I was told. Average pickings per day were around 6 tons, so this certainly put my paltry contribution into context.
Around 8 a.m. one of us would go back down to the farm and make the morning “mincers” which comprised a huge metal teapot containing tea, milk and sugar and plain bread sandwiches with sliced sausage or fried eggs. Never has food tasted so good!
At lunch time we headed to the local chip shop in Bankfoot and were usually waiting at the door for them to open.
On one occasion myself and one of the other girls went to Dunkeld to stock up, and found ourselves being followed round the shop by the owner. This was a disturbing experience when we realised he had assumed from our unkempt appearance and raspberry-stained clothes that we would be likely to shoplift. We soon put his gas at a peep when my friend with her cut-glass accent asked for fillet steak, tinned asparagus, butter, double cream and mushrooms which we knew we could cook easily on our single gas ring. He laughed heartily with us, but I was left with a feeling of unease that he would so quickly label us by our appearance.
I hasten to add that the fillet steak was a treat, and most nights we heated up beans or tinned spaghetti, and made toast at the fire.
So, what did I learn from my summer fruit-picking? Firstly, I lacked the stamina for the physical tasks involved in picking and carrying round the buckets, and after a couple of weeks I was given responsibility for preparing the morning “mincers” and allocated chores in the farmhouse and on the weighing/paying station in the field.
The latter brought me into contact with some of the travelling families, and I was struck by their resilience and tenacity, and the support and good relationships between old and young. I helped a wee nine year old boy hang out the family’s washing on a hedge and marvelled at his calm acceptance of washing in cold water and he told me he hated the winter when they had to “bide in a hoose” in Perth.
He loved the freedom of being out in the fields and sleeping in the tent. I guess travelling was imprinted in his genes.
Today, much of the fruit-picking in the UK is done by immigrant labour – and the anticipated drop in numbers caused by Brexit was one reason for the development of our friendly raspberry picking robot. There is also a much larger market for quality soft fruit, and a need for gentle picking and packing rather than the heavy wellington boot method favoured by my farmer.
My six weeks also taught me about my own areas of strength and development, gave me a window into alternative lifestyles and first-hand experience of prejudice. I also learned that reaching over for the biggest juiciest raspberry on the wrong side of my allocated picking area resulted in a wasp sting which put my picking action (and earning potential) out of action for the remainder of the day!
"Before I put my pen awa,It’s this I would like to say:You’ll travel far afore you’ll meetA kinder lot than they;For I’ve mixed wi them in field and pubAnd while I’ve breath to spare,I’ll bless the hand that led me taeThe berry fields o Blair."
Extract from The Berryfields of Blair by Belle Stewart (1906 - 1997
Take care. Lead well.
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