This story started on a bus. Going back to the van one day I was chatting with the bus driver and mentioned that I was from Pennsylvania. One of the passengers then said he was from Erie, so we got to talking. Turned out he was sort of a snow-birder like me, but his story was a bit different…
Scott had grown up in Erie and as a teen had worked on boats out on the Great Lakes. About 10 years ago he was offered a job working on a fishing boat in Alaska. Although it was only for part of the year (the summer) it paid super-good. So he spent a few years working the Alaska fishing boats in summer and returning to work on Lake Erie in the winter.
Commercial fishing is, despite the TV show, mostly a shit job. You live on the boat for weeks at a time with five or six others. The work goes on 24 hours, so you barely get any sleep. The work is mind-numbingly monotonous drudgery: the net goes out, the net goes in, you sort the catch, the net goes back out…. It is also dangerous; there are lots of sharp things around, machinery that can entangle you, ocean storms that can drown you…It’s freezing cold all the time. On the other hand, the pay is very very good, and in some summers it’s possible to make enough money for the entire year. Of course, the reason the pay is so good is that the work is so crappy that they have to bribe people to do it. The turnover rate is enormously high. It’s very rare to work with the same people from year to year.
Then one winter Scott was offered a job picking citrus fruit in Florida, and ended up at the Mixon Fruit Farm in Bradenton. And that began his current routine of working in Alaska for the summer and then Florida for the winter.
Like commercial fishing, fruit-picking is seasonal work. Each crop only gives one harvest per year, but different fruits mature at different times, so the picking season runs from November to April. Most agricultural pickers are migrants, moving from state to state as different fruit and vegetable crops are ready for harvesting. Some live in motels; some live in campers. In the lower-paying farms (the pay depends on what you are picking—you get paid so much per pound) there are often fields of tents, similar to homeless camps, where many of the workers live during the harvest.
Mostly, the work consists of picking fruit, filling up a big bag that you carry with you (which can hold up to 90 pounds), and periodically emptying it into a packing crate or a truck bed. Since you have only a limited amount of time to pick each type of fruit before it spoils, the work goes on at a rapid pace for long hours every day. The pay is shit, especially compared to a job on a fishing boat, but Scott likes it because he gets to come to Florida every year. Some years, the fishing job pays all the bills and the fruit-picking is just extra money.
I found the whole story interesting, so when Scott mentioned that the Fruit Farm offers tours of its orange groves, I decided to stop in.
The Mixon Fruit Farm started back in 1939 with a 20-acre field. It steadily expanded to 350 acres, which now includes a retail store, processing and shipping plant, and around 125 employees.
Here are some photos from a visit.