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Love and Blueberries

by Meghann on July 14, 2012

Shhh… don’t tell the cherries, but I may or may not have cheated on them with blueberries today.

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What? All’s fair in love and fruit. :-p

I was up a littler earlier for my run this morning. I did the same out-and-back route as yesterday, but extended it to a total of 4 miles instead of 3. Also, I made a new llama friend on the road.

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Not sure I’ve ever seen a llama during a run before. That might be a first.

After a quick shower, I met the rest of the crew for breakfast downstairs. I had some of the yogurt and granola I enjoyedyesterday.

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Plus, a bran muffin with homemade jams.

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The main course today was an egg filled crepe. Inside was a mix of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, and fresh basil – it was delicious.

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We left the helicopter on the ground today (darn!) and hopped in the van for a bit of road trip to one of Rainier Fruit Company’s fruit farms in the south.

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There were some questions in yesterday’s post regarding Rainier’s seasonal workers that I wanted to make sure I addressed in this post.

During their harvest season, Rainier will employ up to 10,000 seasonal workers. The field we visited today currently has 1,000 seasonal workers on staff. Of the 1,000 workers, 50% are local and 50% are “guest workers” who come to Rainer from all over the world (but, mainly Mexico) through a government assisted work program. Rainier pays for their travel to Washington and pays for their housing while they are working.

Harvesting typically runs from June to early November, which will take them through cherry season, blueberry season, and apple season. The workers stay on site and work 6 days a week (they have Sunday off), and will return to their home country once the season is over. They have a 75% repeat worker rate.

We had a chance to take a look at some of the guest worker housing on site. These houses were built within the last year and can hold up to 12 workers. They all have central AC and a cleaning crew comes twice a week to clean the house for the workers.

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The guest workers are bussed to town every Sunday where they are free to do as they wish, but most do their shopping for the week. Many of the guest workers are here to work and make money, so one day off a week is really all they ask for. When offered two in the past, they wondered why they were being denied the opportunity to make money. Keep in mind they are only here for a few months and want to make as much as they can in that short time.

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I didn’t get a photo, but every farm also has a soccer field. Each farm forms their own team and they typically travel to surrounding farms to compete in tournaments. It’s a great way to bond the community, which I thought was pretty cool.

Picking tree fruit is hard work, there’s no doubt about that. The picking crews start in the cool morning air and work until the late afternoon, with a lunch break somewhere in between. Each crew is made up of 12-16 workers and one crew boss. The crew boss takes on the leadership role in the crew and teaches the rest what new challenges that new field will bring for the day.

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The workers are paid by bucket. Once they fill a bucket, they bring it to the end of a line where they trade their berries for a punch in their punch card. At the end of the day the punches are tallied and added to their paycheck. On average a field worker will make $125 per day. A really good field picker could make up to $235 per day. If for some reason the worker doesn’t pick enough fruit to make minimum wage, Rainier will contribute funds to their paycheck to meet the minimum. (edited to add: most workers make WELL over minimum wage, this is a just-in-case scenario that is common practice in most commission-based positions.) 

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These workers were all business. They were there to work and they seemed happy to accomplish the task at hand. In the field, there were plenty of portable restrooms on site, drinking water at the end of almost every row, and forgiving shade thanks to the bird nets. If the worker wants a break, they are free to take them when they see fit.

The great thing about Rainier is that they like to acknowledge hard workers and – even in the field – there’s always room to move up. One worker who started picking fruit in the field, now has a salaried position overseeing field crews. If you’re ambitious, there’s room to grow.

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It was pretty reassuring to hear how Rainier treats their seasonal workers. You can tell they understand how hard the work is that these workers do and they do not take any of them for granted. Their mission is to treat every field worker with as much as respect as any other employee and give them just as many opportunities to grow. Whole Foods only works with companies with practices that they 100% believe in, and Rainier is definitely one of them. :)

Okay. Onto the blueberries!

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Blueberry season runs from the middle of June, through the end of August in Washington.

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Because blueberries are so fragile, they must be picked by hand. The process is very gentle, you want to lightly pull them from the bush. If you have to fight to pick the berry, that means it’s probably not ripe yet.

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Blueberries have a natural white coating called a “bloom” that acts as a natural preservative for the berry. The minute you remove the bloom, you’ve instantly shortened the life of the berry. This is why it’s good practice not to wash your blueberries as soon as you get home from the store, and instead wait until you’re just about to eat them. This will help them last a little longer.

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Aren’t these berries gorgeous? Some were the size of my eyeball!

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I’m not going to lie, we ate more than our fair share of berries straight off the bush.

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Once you start, it’s hard to stop.

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I even tried a couple of the unripened berries. They were very tart and were dubbed “blueberry lemonade” by the group.

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95% of blueberries from Rainier are organic, simply because there’s a good market for it. We learned a good deal about the chemical-free ways Rainier produce their organic products, but something new I learned was that a lot of those same practices are used in conventional farming as well. Chemicals are expensive, so why would farmers coat their fields with chemicals that hurt their bottom line? Any practices farmers find that eliminate bugs while also saving money is great across the board.

A lot of the techniques involved with sustainable farming, rely on capitalizing on natural predators for the bugs and birds that destroy the plants. Like lady bugs.

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Or falcons.

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(the hats are blindfolds so they don’t freak out)

Raul (the handler) started hunting with falcons as a hobby in Peru, but eventually turned it into a career – he now works full time for Rainier. Once a day he brings the birds to various Rainier fields to guard the crops from birds. Their job is to hunt any birds that may have snuck through the bird net.

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He gave us a quick history before releasing Jacob (Raul admitted he was a Twilight fan) in the field.

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Jacob took off and immediately found a bird hidden in the bushes. It was exciting to watch him do his thing.

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Once Jacob caught his lunch, we headed out to look at some of the grapes on property.

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The grapes will be harvested in October and distributed to local wineries in the area.

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We also saw some of the apple orchards.

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These galas should be ready in September.

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If you eat them now they’re very starchy and resemble a potato in texture. We were not fans.

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Another cool thing that Rainier uses in organic farming – as well as conventional – is the tag pictured below.

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The tag gives off pheromones that interrupt moth’s mating habits and turns them away.

We took a final group shot and said good-bye to our friends at the farm.

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We headed next door (literally) to Crescent Creek winery for lunch.

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We had a variety of packed lunches to choose from. I went with the chicken pita.

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Probably one of the freshest packed lunches I’ve ever had. Yum!

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We also snuck inside for a little wine tasting.

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We tried a couple of whites and reds, but nothing stood out.

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Cheers!

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Unfortunately, this is where I had to say good-bye to my new Rainier, Whole Foods, and blogging friends. sniff. sniff. I had to leave the party a little early to catch a red-eye back home for a family friend’s wedding.

I had a BLAST getting to know the great people at Rainier Fruit Company and Whole Foods and learning everything there is to know about cherries and blueberries. It was also fun to geek-out with the Whole Foods produce crew, this team is crazy passionate about good produce and it doesn’t take much for that same passion to rub off. My head is exploding with information overload, and I love it!

THANK YOU Rainier and Whole Foods!!! You guys seriously ROCK!

My flight out of Yakima was quick and painless. Once I landed in Seattle, it wasn’t hard to find a good place to eat (love all the great food options here!). I ended up picking up some cous cous and hummus at Dish D’Lish.

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Probably some of the best grab-and-go airport food I’ve ever had.

My flight home boards in 30 minutes. Hopefully I can catch some Zzzzss on the plane. My fingers are crossed!

Good night!

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sana July 14, 2012 at 12:23 am

Lots of fruit! I am glad you posted about the workers lots of interesting information…
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2 peach July 14, 2012 at 2:10 am

While I am happy to see the seasonal workers treated better than in the past, saying that they get one day off and that is all they want is a little misinformed. One would think that if they were paid better wages (above minimum wage) they would choose to work only 5 days a week. I’m a little disturbed by the glossing over of a real issue.
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3 Meghann July 14, 2012 at 6:36 am

Agreed, it is a generalization, but not entirely misinformed. Most do make well over minimum wage. They come to this country to work and that’s what they want to do. THey are only here for a few months and want to get the most out of that as possible before heading home so they can support their families.

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4 Elisabeth July 14, 2012 at 3:16 am

This trip was such a cool opportunity! I loved that they shared all of the information about how the seasonal workers are treated. It seems like Rainier really cares about their employees & I like that Whole Foods is a company that cares about exactly how their products get to them. Another commenter mentioned that maybe they would choose to work only 5 days/week if they were paid above minimum wage. However, it looks like most of them do make above minimum wage (based on the averages/day you mentioned) & I’m betting a lot them, if paid higher, would still wonder why they didn’t have the opportunity to work that 6th day.

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5 Meghann July 14, 2012 at 6:33 am

They’re only here a few months and the truth is they aren’t here to play. They want to make as much money as possible, even if they are on the higher end of making money. I like what Alex said below “Sure they don’t want 2 days off a week, why would they? To hang out on the farm and enjoy the country? I think not. They are there to earn as much money as possible because their families back home probably rely on it.”

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6 Elisabeth July 14, 2012 at 6:39 am

I completely agree with Alex’s comment! They come here to earn as much as they can during the picking season because they have to. Having more days off wouldn’t help them do that.

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7 Alex July 14, 2012 at 3:33 am

Great that you are providing all this information about the workers. I think the real issue that still gives most readers a weird feeling when reading about the workers is not their work at the cherry farm but the fact that they have to come from their country to work such a hard and boring job for just minimum wage. It’s not exactly Rainiers (or Whole Foods) fault and they seem to be doing everything right giving the circumstances but in the end that is all just sugarcoating an issue that goes much deeper. Why is there no work for them in their country that would allow them to go home to their families at night?
Sure they don’t want 2 days off a week, why would they? To hang out on the farm and enjoy the country? I think not. They are there to earn as much money as possible because their families back home probably rely on it.
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8 Meghann July 14, 2012 at 6:31 am

Rainier would love to employ all locals, but the truth is there aren’t enough people interested in the postion to fulfill their needs during harvest time. This is why they have to outsource the work from other countries. 50% local and 50% outsourced

You’re right the issues run deeper one why they must come here, but really this is generally a great job. They can come north and make a lot of money to support their families back home.

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9 Emily July 14, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Yes. It is always frustrating to me when someone says that foreign workers are “taking American jobs.” As Ranier is demonstrating, there aren’t enough locals interested in these types of very demanding, physical jobs to hire 100% locals. I think this is so important to understand. However, I do think Ranier is showing bloggers a very glossy picture of how their workers are treated. It sounds better than a lot of other farms, but why would they tell you about any of the negatives?

I do think Alex makes a great point. The real question is: why are there not lucrative jobs in the workers’ home countries? We need to understand that US politics have played a role in this problem.
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10 Sarah July 15, 2012 at 8:00 pm

It’s sad to say but the truth is that most American workers are not anywhere near as efficient and driven as migrant workers at those grueling jobs. A family member of mine works for a company who tries to hire local teens and college students to work in their fields. Unfortunately, the local people require far more supervision and at least double the time to complete a task than if they hired a migrant crew. It comes down to dollars and cents for many companies.

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11 Grace @ Grace Dishes July 14, 2012 at 3:34 am

Everything looks so yum! I remember having a blueberry plant growing up and I always anticipated eating the few berries that it produced lol!

Have a great weekend!
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12 Sara@RunningInPinkProject July 14, 2012 at 6:36 am

The foooood! Agh! All of it looks so good (maybe Im just hungry) :) . Bummed you didnt make any great wine finds at your tasting. The last wine tour I went on I ended up coming home with 11 bottles. :)
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13 Melissa July 14, 2012 at 8:21 am

That is so cool about using raptors to seek out the birds that got through the nets! I want that job! Lol! And yes,when raptors where those hoods it helps keep them calm as they’re being handled, otherwise they usually get pretty pissed !
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14 chelsey @ clean eating chelsey July 14, 2012 at 8:47 am

Loved this post – mainly for seeing and reading about the work conditions they provide for their workers! I have never seen such nice arrangements for seasonal workers (we have a lot around here and I haven’t ever seen companies housing them).I think it’s awesome you shared those stats!
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15 Gabby (Quest for Delicious) July 14, 2012 at 8:53 am

Ahh that all looks like heaven! Blueberries are definitely one of my favorite fruits.

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16 Colleen July 14, 2012 at 9:24 am

this is probably one of the weirder marketing campaigns, but it WORKED. i’ve never eaten a cherry in my life, but after your post yesterday i went to my local whole foods and bought a bag of cherries–and they were delicious (i may or may not have referenced your post in the store to see which variety you liked best). nice work, whole foods and rainier! i am now a cherry fan.
Colleen recently posted..Ate my first cherry at 24 years old.

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17 Sneakers2sandals July 14, 2012 at 9:35 am

Freaking amazing experience!! There’s not enough space for me to comment on everything!!
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18 Katie @ Talk Less, Say More July 14, 2012 at 10:04 am

Wow! Definitely looks like a fun day! I had a dream the other night I was picking blueberries…totally random but this reminded me. :)
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19 Cait's Plate July 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm

So jealous of all your fresh picked fruit adventures!!
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20 Julie July 14, 2012 at 1:42 pm

“All’s fair in love and fruit.” <—- ha love it. Glad you had an awesome trip!
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21 Sam @ Better With Sprinkles July 14, 2012 at 3:56 pm

I loved learning about the labour practices Rainier uses. I know seasonal work must be difficult, so it’s very reassuring to know that seasonal workers are being treated and compensated fairly for what they do!
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22 Annette @FitnessPerks July 14, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Ohhhhh those blueberries look AHHHHMAZING! Yumm.

Have a safe flight!
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23 Bethany @ Accidental Intentions July 14, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I had no idea that’s what the white stuff on blueberries did! I actually always figured it was pesticide residue or something like that. Good information to know!
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24 SaraB July 14, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Haha me too! I also had no idea about the bloom, thanks for the education :)

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25 Maggie July 14, 2012 at 8:02 pm

I’m in Portland, OR visiting my grandparents and we went to Whole Foods today to buy food for me and I bought some Rainer blueberries and thought of you. And that was before reading this post!

It’s also really interesting to hear how they treat their workers.

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26 Tracy July 14, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Loved this post! Fascinating information. Well done, Meghann!

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27 anne p July 14, 2012 at 11:02 pm

What a cool and informative post! Thanks for sharing all you learned with us. Reminds me a little of the Stonyfield barnstorming tour I went on a couple years ago!
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28 Gina C. @ At Home with Gina C. July 15, 2012 at 9:58 am

Funny. I am eating Rainier blueberries right now for breakfast!
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29 The Many Thoughts of a Reader July 16, 2012 at 10:21 am

I am very jealous of your trip!
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