Peaches in the summertime,
Apples in the fall ...
— 'Shady Grove', 18th century folk song

The Orchard in the Suburbs

I had a paper route through junior high school, and also did work cutting neighbor's lawns, but the first real job I got started in 1980. It was the Summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. Through someone he knew, my brother got us both jobs picking peaches at an orchard about 10 miles outside of Haddonfield.

Suburban Farmers

The owner of the orchard had decided to try hiring high school kids to pick the harvest that year. They had hired Latino migrant laborers up until that time, but in the Summer of 1980 a group of kids from several of the surrounding high schools was assembled and the suburban kids went to work at dawn each day picking fruit. New Jersey in July and August can get incredibly hot and humid, so picking fruit for 8 hours under a hot sun in 98 degrees with 98% humidity was not uncommon. The work was repetitive, and within an hour the peach fuzz would work it's way into your skin at the creases of your neck and elbows and itched the same way that fiberglass building insulation does. When combined with the intense heat of midday I recall only the desire to tear my skin off it was so hot and uncomfortable. Even though it was hot, filthy, and draining, the work paid nearly double what my friends were getting at their retail jobs at the mall, so I was glad to be doing it.

The year after I was on the peach picking crew the owner went back to hiring migrant labor. Apparently on our best day the high school kids only picked less than half of what the professionals could, and the farm couldn't afford not to use them. I've seen the speed at which they work, and it was nothing that we ever could have kept up with. The few of the high schoolers that remained went to work in the fruit stand and the packing house.

Disappearing Agriculture

The Orchard was a remnant of the farms that had taken up most of the land in South Jersey ever since the arrival of the first English and Swedish settlers in the 1600's. For many years Haddonfield had been a crossroads in the woods between the larger towns of Camden, Gloucester, and Salem, New Jersey. The inevitable urban sprawl from Camden and Philadelphia had slowly built up and filled in those woods and fields, such that there was precious little undeveloped land between Haddonfield and Philadelphia. There was still farmland to the west and south though, starting just as you crossed over the Haddonfield town line and went into Cherry Hill. Empty fields of wild grass were often all that remained of the large farms that used to dominate, but now those same fields were being filled with shopping malls and housing developments. But in 1980 you could pass from suburban density into rural backroads within the space of a half mile.

We had and old Torino station wagon and when I was a sophomore in high school we got it up to 117 MPH around dawn on the empty two lane blacktop of Kresson Road. A scant three years later we could not go faster than 20 MPH due to the increased traffic from all the newly-built homes covering what had been farmland a few years before.

Looking Over the Fields

This part of New Jersey is almost complexly flat, but there was a little rise in the back of the orchard, perhaps on 40 or 50 feet above the land around it, but it was enough to see over the tops of the trees around. I used to love to take one of the farm cars or trucks back this way whenever I could. Standing on the roof of the truck I could actually get a view out over the neat rows of apple and peach trees, over fields and housing developments, with the faint outline of Camden and Philadelphia off in the misty distance. Growing up in a flat place I was hungry for anything that could afford a broader view of the world around.

The Barn

It was an even better view from the second floor of the old barn that loomed above the orchard parking lot and packing house. It was clearly the oldest structure on the property that was left over from a time when this small orchard was part of something much larger. There were many missing boards, so we didn't get to go up there much, but it was packed with old, rusting farm equipment and apple shipping crates. I was told by the owner that right after World War II the orchard used to ship a lot of it's crop to Europe and Asia, still devastated by the war, but as the agriculture in those countries rebounded the prices dropped and shipments tapered off, until there was only the leftover wooden crates as a memory. I loved the few times I was asked to venture into the bard to pull out some piece of aged farm equipment stored within. The building was both a relic of it's time and purpose, as well as a portal to it. That building was part of a rural and agricultural New Jersey that was disappearing before my eyes, but inside the bard i could feel that time gone by more closely, and the noise of the machines and suburban families dimmed to let the quiet sound of a very different life be heard, if only for a moment.

Learning to Drive

Being larger than my 15 years, the owner and managers at the orchard assumed I could drive, and after a few lessons from whomever I could get to show me how, I soon could. I learned to drive on a 1952 GMC pickup that knocked around the orchard. It had seen a lot of farm usage and was filthy and beat, but I drove it every chance I could get. We had a couple of even older trucks from the 1930's and 40's. They had been converted into flatbeds by cutting off everything behind and above the dashboard, so that only the driver's seat, steering wheel and dashboard remained. The doors, windshield and roof had been cut away. These old trucks started by pushing a button on the floor and bounced so much on their springs you had to buckle up to avoid being ejected from the driver's seat. The seat itself was only a frame of wire and springs, anything made of cloth having rotted away to dust through sitting parked next to the barn in all seasons.

The Packing House

The Packing House sat behind the Farm Stand and across from the barn. It was old when I started and I loved the rickety old sorting machine; apples or peaches (depending on the season) were washed then chilled (peaches only) before being rolled in a line through a little roller coaster that would sort them by size into holding areas. At each holding area someone would stand with a basket to arrange the fruit for sale, or else load it carefully into boxes to be stored in the big walk-in cooler for later sale at our farm stand, shipment around the country or overseas.

Just outside the packing house sat the Hydro-cooler, a massive refrigeration unit that was full of some opaque chemical solution that enabled the water to be stored at below freezing temperatures. The peaches were run through here first to chill them to the pit, then they were sorted and packed.

In the fall the harvest switched from peaches to apples, both of which New Jersey grows very well. Of the two apples were my favorite, since they had no fuzz to irritate your skin and them coming in meant that the autumn was happening. Apple picking was less rushed that peach picking, the apples being much more robust a fruit and the window for ripeness being much wider. I had learned how to make an apple pie by this time, and I looked forward to the winesap apples coming in late each fall. They were tart and crisp, perfect for baking. In the packing house all the apples were sorted by the conveyor system into small, medium, large, and anything bigger than large. This last group of apples were more like grapefruit in size. I waited until there was a pile on the last table and then I'd fill a bag with about 8 of them, which would make about 2 pies. There was so much less peeling involved with an apple that big, so it make the whole process much easier.

The orchard had a cider press as well. There was a powered apple grinder that fed apples through the top on a conveyer, then they would get ground by ferocious spinning blades. One of my fondest memories was feeding apples into the maw of that machine in the slanting morning sunlight while a sweet mist of vaporized apples would waft down the conveyer — that smell was the essence of Autumn to me. Pressing cider was a two person dance of loading a hydraulic press with a stack of pallets, then a 2" layer of coarse applesauce from the grinder, then another pallet, and so one until it was about 4 feet high. Then the whole stack was slowly pressed, giving of it's juice in a giant gush that slowed to a trickle. When it was done the spent applesauce looked like wet sawdust with nearly every drop of moisture squeezed out.

The orchard was another one of those 'holes in the modern world' which allowed a vestige of something much older to live on in the present, and I loved to savor the age of the place, combined with the ancient rhythms of farming, sowing, trimming and harvest. It was a good job from a pay perspective, but I also felt like I was being initiated into a much older order of the universe through working in a pursuit as old as civilization itself. I had no dreams of spending my life as a farmer — I knew that life was not for me. But I loved the chance to experience the lives of other people going back to the dawn of time. That was the feeling that lay in the shadows of the trees and old buildings on land that had been farmed for several hundred years.