The most devastating lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Here is an example: “It would be fun to go apple-picking!” This is a short list of autumnal outdoor activities that are fun: drinking coffee (outdoors); walking in a park while wearing a cable-knit sweater; the Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade. Apple-picking is not on that list.
Honestly, after two years in relative isolation, I had forgotten that apple-picking was even possible as an activity, but then I read the internet. At Vox, there’s a long article about how recreational apple-picking obscures the realities of agricultural work. Insider warned that apple-picking might get more expensive this year, the result of a labor shortage and an onslaught of extreme weather. Meanwhile on Twitter, Simon Holland, a comedian in Atlanta, pointed to more immediate practical concerns:
“Haha!” I thought. “That’s true.”
Are apples a luxury item now? At local Greenmarkets, I saw Honeycrisps run $3.75 per pound — very affordable until you realize what apples weigh. According to September’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers, prices for all pre-picked apples went up nearly 8 percent this year. But then, food prices are up across the board this year.
For some reason, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not seem interested in the changing cost of “U-pick” apples, so I called Josh Morgenthau, the third-generation owner of the Hudson Valley’s Fishkill Farms, which runs a robust pick-your-own operation in addition to selling at farmers’ markets and through its CSA. Could he explain the deal with U-pick apples?
He could. He had been thinking about this, he told me. As an apple farmer, he thought it made sense that apple prices would be going up — unpredictable weather, rising cost of labor (a good thing, he points out) — though he hadn’t raised his apple prices this year at all. Instead, Fishkill Farms started offering U-pick apples out of necessity, a story that’s “sort of a microcosm” for the industry at large, he said. The farm used to sell all its fruit to supermarkets and wholesalers, but then one year sometime in the 1980s, a hailstorm hit just before the harvest, leaving “a blemish on every single fruit in the orchard.” Supermarkets didn’t want to take any of it. Who would? They opened up the field to whoever wanted to come and pick, charging a fraction of grocery-store prices. It was a runaway success.
Initially, they catered to people who wanted to buy very, very large quantities of apples for cheap for whatever reason (canning, pie-baking). But slowly — Morgenthau estimates it happened within the past 15 years — the crowd started to shift toward recreational pickers, people who wanted to hang out in J.Crew flannel work shirts and pick only a couple pounds of apples. This was not in itself a problem — except it turned out a lot of people buying very few apples was significantly less profitable than a few people buying a lot of apples. Then there was a pandemic.
To allow for social distancing, his farm started taking apple-picking reservations. A flat $40 fee covered up to three people picking 20 pounds of apples. Forty dollars is a lot of money, but then 20 pounds is a lot of apples. It’s still more expensive than it would be to buy exactly the same Fishkill Farms apples at the farmers’ market, but why shouldn’t it be? You are buying not just apples but the full apple experience. U-pick is the reason the farm can continue to exist, Morgenthau said bluntly.
It is very hard to stay cynical about apple-picking when you’re talking to a tree-fruit farmer. “It’s a no-brainer,” he told me. Most of us spend our lives indoors, and here is an excuse to go outside and feel as though you have accomplished something. “There is a real satisfaction in picking produce that you’re then going to cook with,” he said.
Fine, I relent, but here is my issue: Apple-picking is too easy. Nobody talks about this! Price is not the problem; the lack of struggle is. There is no strategy. There are no obstacles. There is no ladder. You go to pick apples, and you will be able to pick apples. Don’t all the most rewarding activities contain some risk of failure? Recently, I went canoeing and thought on two different occasions, It is possible I will die. Now that is satisfaction!
True, walking — which I’ve already pointed out is a good activity — offers little risk of failure, but walking is free and mostly not an activity. (Also I am unusually prone to falling down.) You are free to spend your time this autumn however you’d like, and if you’d prefer to be outside paying too much for fruit that you have to pick yourself instead of watching Succession or The Dog House U.K., go ahead. I understand. I’ve been there. I probably will be there again, standing in flannel in an orchard, wondering why the hardest part of the experience was trying to rent a car. The pull of apple-picking is too strong to resist.