Picking Prunes

Call it a practical education, a rite of passage, child labor, or whatever you will, but picking prunes was a way of life for four generations of Valley dwellers.

This blog was condensed from the new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story. Hope you enjoy it!

The first thing that should be said about picking prunes is that we picked prunes.  We did not pick plums. If you have trouble with that and think I’ve slipped a hitch, .

Today, prune harvesting in the US is done with mechanical harvesters, but in the hey-day of prunes in the Santa Clara Valley they were picked up off of the ground by hand. A picker would be given two large galvanized buckets, which when filled would be emptied into a wooden fruit box. Two full buckets equaled one box. A shaker would go before the pickers with a long pole that had a metal hook on the end. The shaker would place the hook on a tree branch, carefully pull the branch toward him to take up the slack, and then shake the branch to release the fruit, which thundered down as hundreds of plump prunes hit the ground at nearly the same time. Sometimes, there was the unpleasant effect of getting a face-full of dust while performing this task, or of being covered with little white flies if a tree was infested. But it was, in my opinion, much easier than being on your hands and knees all day picking up the fallen fruit. That, dear reader, was work.

Each picker was assigned a row of trees in the orchard. There was no jumping around to find the best trees that had the thickest blanket of prunes under them. In the mid 1960s, the pay was 35 cents a box, and that included helping pick up the full boxes from the orchard and loading them onto the orchard truck. 

Good picking depended upon how large the prunes were, how thick they were on the ground, and of course upon one’s own desire.   

A prune picker needed to be outfitted properly. The prunes became ripe around the middle of August, so a broad hat was necessary to protect from the sun.  Long-sleeved cotton shirts were worn because they protected from sunburn and kept the dirt out, yet allowed the skin to breathe. Denim pants insulated a little from the roughness of the dirt on which the picker knelt all day. Leather boots were best, but lacking these, high-top tennis shoes—made of canvas in those days—would do. Low-cut shoes made good collectors of tiny dirt clods and were useless. Speaking of dirt clods—knees don’t like them.  So kneepads of various kinds were tried by some of the pickers.  Some pickers wrapped old rags around their knees and used tape to hold them up, others bought whatever kneepads were available at the hardware store. But due to the cost of good pads and the awkwardness of cheaper or home-made pads, most of the kids did without.

Picking prunes was a matter of overcoming. The first thing you needed to overcome was your bed in the morning. If you didn’t start early, well before the sun was hot, it probably wasn’t worthwhile to come out at all. That meant you had to go to bed early, and that required certain sacrifices. The next thing to overcome was the dirt clods.  As soon as you knelt down to pick, you realized that there was some discomfort involved.  There was also the stickiness of some of the prunes. The stickiness usually wasn’t too bad, but when added to dirt it made a grimy paste on your fingers.  Then, there were flies: big flies, little fruit flies, and tiny white flies. The fruit flies were the worst because they have a fascination for the inside of your ears and nose. Then there was the heat of the day.  August was the hottest time of the year, and that’s when the prunes were ripe, so you sweated profusely. Add all these together with a sore back from bending over and stiff legs from being on your knees all day, and you had a formula that sent some of the kids home before the first day was over. 

You could easily see the struggle that went on in a new picker’s mind. He wanted to earn the money, but he was not accustomed to the unpleasantness involved in prune picking.  So overcoming was essential to success, and those who overcame developed the mental toughness of a marathon runner. I suppose that at a certain point a decision is made that goes something like this: “I’m already dirty and grimy. I want the money. I might as well just do it.” And thus a life of discipline was learned by many young kids.


The Last of the Prune Pickers is available on the web at www.2timothypublishing.com

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

David and Darlene Steele August 12, 2012 at 06:28 PM
Very nice description, makes you feel like you're there!


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