27 February 2010


I did not grow up on a farm. I think if had, my outlook on life might be very different than it is. We lived in Bakersfield, in town, my father an optometrist, until I was 12.

I really do not know why my father bought our farm in Oroville.  I wonder if Peter has any ideas.  As I have said in previous posts, he looked into the possibility of building and running a tourist resort in Canada in 1952, and only in 1954 did we move to the farm in Oroville.  I have always assumed that it was not so much the positive draw of farming that moved him to change, but something negative about ... well, perhaps about living in Bakersfield.  Certainly he made gestures towards optometry both in Oroville and, later, in Hawai'i.

But he bought a farm - orchards, as I have explained - principally olives (something like 30 acres, I think), oranges (10 or 12), almonds (about 3, I believe).

For me, farming life was principally about the fun of living in the country - coupled with a not-very-good attitude towards actually doing much work.

For we - that is to say, my brother, sister, and I - did definitely work.  And despite the fact that I was often quite hard of hearing early in the morning, when my mother would try to wake me up to send me out to change sprinkler pipes, I don't think I ever really resented the work at all.

Changing sprinkler pipes seems to me a kind of icon of farm work, because when it had to be done, during the summer, it was a never-ending task.

Oroville has a fairly hot and dry climate.  This page shows average Fahrenheit temperatures (July peak average about 36C) and annual rainfall (about 730mm).  According to that page, from June through August the average rainfall is about 14mm - that is, practically nothing.

So we irrigated.  Our farm was down a slope, called "Kelly Ridge."  At the top was a ditch carrying irrigation water, and I suppose (I never bothered to understand this when I was a kid) came down in a pipe to our farm.  Across the tops of our orchards were strings of 100mm aluminium pipes, each about 10m long, coupled together - the 'main.'  And from that main, at each junction of two 10m pipes, you could connect a tee that coupled 75mm feeder pipes, each with a sprinkler at its end.

I am explaining this badly, I'm afraid.  What it meant was that during the summer, twice, or sometimes three times, a day we would couple together a string of the smaller pipes to a tee at the top, and let them sprinkle the trees.  But we had only one row's worth of smaller pipes to an orchard.  So at intervals, Peter and I (usually) would go out, turn off the water, move the smaller pipes, one at a time, to the next row, connect them up, and start the water.

And then the next row.  And then the next.  And so forth.  It did get tedious.  The pipes were aluminium, so not heavy - but it was tedious.

One tends, in New Zealand, to think of olives as principally an oil crop.  For us in California, the money was in what are called 'ripe olives,' though I think the way we picked ours was actually as unripe - green - olives.  They can be cured either way.

The harvesting of olives is - or was for us - labour-intensive.  Actually, at the end of the harvest season of ripe olives - around Christmas - we harvested the ripened remainder for oil, and that was straightforward.  The method was very similar to almonds.  Drive up to a tree with the tractor, spread canvas sheets under it, use bamboo poles to shake the branches, or mallets to hit the trunk and large branches.  Down come the rather shrivelled fully ripe olives.  You just tip them into some sort of container - I forget what - and they are taken to the pressing mill.

'Ripe olives' are different.  They have to be of the right size - no one wants to eat tiny little things - so you have to check the size of some of the fruit on a tree to make sure they are big enough, by pushing them through a washer.  You pick them by stripping them by hand.  No shaking them down for these!  They mustn't be bruised.  You have a small flat box that you put them into.  It takes a lot of olives to fill a box!  The labour required for a box of olives is shown by the fact that typically, when we picked oranges, the pickers (and we kids got paid for picking, if we did it) got something like $ .15/box (depended on the conditions each year).  Olives might be anywhere from $ .85 to $1.25.

We hired migrant workers to do the picking.  They lived in really terrible cabins - even as a kid I thought they were horrible - with a long-drop privy, and the only plumbing being a tap outside - during the season (autumn - I don't recall the exact months - October-November, I think).  They had long ladders to use for picking.  I did a bit of picking, for money, but not much.  Too hard work and too boring - also cold, then.

Each evening my father drove the tractor, with a long wagon, through the orchards.  We would pick up the boxes - checking under the top layer of olives, at times, for pickers were not always perfectly honest - a layer of stones or dirt at the bottom was not unheard of - and load them on the wagon.

It's funny what jokes stick with you.  My father always made the same joke at the end of a run of picking up the boxes.  I always laughed.  I think I still laugh at the memory:

"The last box at last!  We should have got that one first; then we'd be done already."

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