Author: Esther R Anderson, from the University of Southern Queensland, is an anthropologist of labour, temporality, and landscape, among many other things. You can follow her on Twitter at @EstherR_And.
A gnarled persimmon tree had grown in the back garden of my childhood. It was an astringent variety, with a bitter taste until the moment of ripening. The fruit had an unpleasant consistency, better suited for jam-making than for eating. Most seasons, the fruit bat colonies that flew over the house ate the orange persimmons before anyone could pick them from the tree. The scene didn’t seem important at the time, but it was all a precursor to understanding texture, the senses, and relational materiality.
Over a decade later, this memory of the persimmon tree followed me as I began research on working holidaymakers in agrarian landscapes. It hung over me as I observed the harvest at a persimmon orchard in South East Queensland. Although some varieties only become sweet when their texture is especially soft – like the tree I had once known – the orchard specialised in those that have a much longer shelf-life. Still, overripe persimmons are prone to quickly turning soft, making them inedible after a few days. It was not uncommon for the workers sorting them to occasionally grab a persimmon from the bin with their left hand, only to unexpectedly and discomfortingly feel it squelch, jelly-like between their fingers. The resultant – a visible psychogenic shiver – was quickly followed by the audible ‘splat!’ of an overripe fruit slamming into a white plastic bucket.
These visceral reactions to touching something unexpected, something soft and slimy that squishes with a too-firm grip, were a momentary interruption to an otherwise systematic, refined series of movements. Over time, workers learned to adopt a style of grip that was equal parts firm and tender, avoiding any unpleasant sensations.
Much of seasonal agricultural labour is technically classified as ‘unskilled’, a term that usually denotes intensely physical work, or that which is separated out into small, menial, repetitive tasks. In most circumstances, unskilled labour does not require extensive training beforehand or formal education qualifications.
Of course, ‘unskilled’ is an obstructive misnomer, as even the most minute of skills – or situated knowledges – does not come automatically. Imagining this type of labour as unskilled obfuscates the way that knowledge is accumulated and then passed on to others, and diminishes a surprisingly intimate relationship with the natural world.
Watching someone sorting persimmons reveals a surprisingly intimate process. The practice requires swift, learned hand movements – the same could be said of any variety of fruit or vegetable encountered in a grocery store or farmers’ market. To begin, a worker picks up a piece of fruit with their left hand, from the rotating metal bin that sits at waist-height. They then shift the persimmon to their right hand, and pick up a second piece of fruit with their left hand, while simultaneously sorting the fruit in their right, deciding whether it should be discarded, placed in a ‘seconds’ box for lower quality produce, or is suitable for commercial sale.
If the fruit is suitable for commercial sale, the worker then places each piece in a corresponding size-graded tray on a shelf at eye-level above the bins. Three cardboard trays sit on the shelf above the rotating metal bins, in front of each worker. The cardboard trays are assigned to a particular size of fruit, and contain corresponding plastic inserts.
Fruits are referred to as 12s, 14s, 16s, 18s, 20s, but the occasional tray of 22s eventuates from the harvest. This method of classification indicates the number of persimmons that can fit into the plastic inserts; 12s are the largest, 14s are slightly smaller, and so on. If fruit in the rotating metal bins is either too large or too small for any of the boxes directly in front of a worker, it is placed in the bins to their right or left. Then, their co-worker will sort the fruit as appropriate. Through this system, the right-most worker should end up with the largest pieces of fruit, while the worker at the left sorts the smallest. Altogether, this process seems to last a split second.
When I observed a newly-hired working holidaymaker first begin sorting fruit at the packing shed, their movements were clunky and disjointed, awkward and slow. They were subject to repeated corrections by a frustrated packing shed supervisor, working to strict deadlines imposed by both the fruit itself and the orchard’s contract to supply major national supermarket chains. “Twist and scrunch! Twist and scrunch!” she reminded them, after several trays had been filled with too-large fruit.
Size determines the eventual sale price, and correct sorting is crucial to maintaining a smooth-running farming operation. The ‘twist and scrunch’ method proved to be reliable – by gently twisting a persimmon into the plastic inserts until a crinkling sound could be heard, it became easier to accurately grade each piece of fruit.
It is convenient to say that learned practices such as sorting persimmons become embedded in the skin, somehow. Eventually, it looks – and feels – as if there is no specific mark where hands end and fruit begins, and the boundaries between body and produce become increasingly ambiguous.
Anna Tsing (2015, p. 81) describes sorting as a careful art, or even a highly choreographed dance, where intentional hand movements reduce all other body parts to silent stillness. In the packing shed, any initial awkwardness and clumsiness soon disappears, and is replaced by a mesmerisingly fluid pattern of movement; the act of sorting fruit looks more like a trance.
There is undoubtedly something intangibly satisfying about the art of sorting and packing produce: the collaboration between workers as they whirl around their co-workers’ bodies, hyper-aware of spatial surroundings! The sheer incredulity of seeing work done with such precision and efficiency! These workers become purveyors of quotidian magic.
This video, circulated by Twitter account Satisfying Daily, depicts the skilfulness of so-called ‘unskilled’ work.
To give too much credit to somatosensory processes, however, limits the role of skilfulness that is hidden in menial tasks. Foundational knowledge becomes habitual, as accumulated knowledge shifts from being cognitive to corporeal. Erin O’Connor (2007, p. 189) writes that, “as our awareness of a practice shifts into focal awareness, so too does that practice take on a lived character, a graceful extended movement, an arc of embodied techniques”.
In the packing shed at the orchard, mastery means that a workers’ hands move independently, and they barely need to look down at a persimmon before shuffling it to their right hand and placing it in one of the trays on the shelves above. Over time workers’ hands become more visibly attuned to the ‘feel’ of things (Krzywoszynska 2016). This transition from ‘new employee’ to ‘proficient worker’ (which sometimes takes place after only a few days of immersion in the agricultural space) is marked by changes in the body and subsequent actions.
Less time is spent with lips pursed in momentary frustration with less persimmons placed in the bins beside them to offload confusion over grading to more experienced co-workers. Instead, each person’s movements become more fluid and full of intent, as knowledge settles and becomes routine.
It is easy to romanticise this sort of labour, especially when it can be so mesmerising, rendering new intimacies between personhood and produce. At its core, part of the mythos of Australian agriculture and the rural idyll reveals a preference for narratives depicting notions of productivity that are contingent on management over unruly environments and closeness with land (Lockie & Burke 2002). In this context, skilfulness is readily transformed into a mythical thing, as cultivation equates to control. A colonial intimacy, one which favours specific bodies and practices.
Although the labouring body can also be a skillful one, it is also easily hidden away. Agricultural work is largely devalued – and perhaps this speaks to a much broader conversation about the links between capitalist frameworks and irrevocably altered climate. Drought-ridden landscapes do not offer an imagined secure future.
A gig economy
Fruit picking is also a form of employment that is seen as less desirable, by those who have the social and economic capital to seek out alternatives – and are attempting to avoid the insecurity of the contemporary gig economy.
It is one of many reasons why young people in Australian agricultural regions move elsewhere, as they seek out opportunities that are otherwise unavailable to them in small, rural towns. For the moment, however, there is plenty of work available.
The unskilled work of fruit picking is taken up by a fluid, homogenous population of temporary migrants, who have an impetus to travel to these regions via conditions embedded in temporary visa programs. An inherent precarity is part of labouring in agricultural regions; these patterns of work necessitate flexibility, transience, and rapid accumulation of knowledge.
Sorting fruit may be a sensory art, and it is possible to get entirely lost in the aesthetics of skilful hands and the physicality of localised knowledge. But these depictions should not come at the cost of a loss of context, and we should question why this work takes place, who largely occupies these roles, and what power they hold in these socioeconomic systems.
[Image by Ikram Ullah on Unsplash]