|picking in rainy weather (Cornwall, 2014)|
[Image source: http://www.fruitnet.com/fpj/article/160719/daffodil-pickers-battle-against-record-storms ]
“So what are you doing now?” Kizzy asked.
Supposing that she didn’t mean cutting the grass with a pair of shears, I eventually mentioned what I was writing.
“And will it include travellers’ culture?” she pursued.
“Oh yes – I mean, it’s mainly just books so far...”
I felt embarrassed, since Kizzy is not at all bookish, or indeed houseish, and I thought of how irrelevant everything I’d written about would seem; like an endless double-period. I was currently in the thick of writing about King Lear, as it happened. That didn’t sound too thrilling. Though afterwards, I thought ... ("the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, your looped and windowed raggedness") ... I thought that King Lear was maybe not so irrelevant, after all.
Tulips can be picked by machine; their blooming, or rather budding, is amazingly synchronized. But it’s different with a line of daffodils, which needs to be picked over for days or even weeks after the first emergence of the leaders. Besides, it’s important to spare the leaves; the plant will be cropped again next year. So daffodil-picking remains a manual activity – hands, literally, not scissors. You’ll see why.
The going rate is 6p a bunch (of ten), though it has been 7p or even, exceptionally, 8p. “Green sticks” are the crop, but occasionally “splitters” might be allowed if the market is local. When Kizzy started out she made about £30-40 a day, say 600 bunches. But now she does double that, and one day this spring she picked 1,600 bunches, which is 16,000 green sticks. Which is an average of one daffodil every 2.5 seconds for ten hours, without breaks.
That was in optimum conditions. On some farms the lines run a long way from the collection area, so you lose time carrying the crates (a crate holds 100 bunches). A sparse crop means time is wasted looking about; or if you’re on a steep slope you spend more time getting a hold; if it’s windy, the stems move as you reach for them; if it’s wet weather, you’re slithering around in mud.
But there are pickers (mostly Russians and Poles) who can get up to 2,000 bunches a day – by mid-afternoon, even. The fastest are two-handed pickers; Kizzy says it depends where you learn. Two-handed picking is East Anglian. In Cornwall it’s mostly one-handed.
Here’s what one-handed picking means. She picks with her right hand, pinching each stem between thumb and forefinger. You wear a latex glove; the daffodil sap is fierce, as most plant juices would be if you immersed in them all day. The leading joint of Kizzy’s right forefinger is knobbed, from the thousands of times it has banged into clods and stones. The left hand is used to move aside the leaves and other stems so that the right hand is unobstructed. The picked stems stay in the palm of the right hand until there are ten. You have to count as you go (though this becomes automatic), and you never look at the stem you’re picking, because what you are looking at is the next one. When you have a bunch you transfer it to your left hand and carry on. When you have a second bunch in your right hand you put the one that was in your left hand under your right arm; then with your left hand fumble in your pocket for two rubber bands and snap them onto the tails of the two bunches (luckily the rubber bands aren’t charged for and a lot of them end up on the ground). Finally you throw the two bunches into the crate and carry on. (The whole process would have happened twice while you read this paragraph.)
Two-handed picking means that you pick two bunches at the same time; one with each hand. I suppose you go strictly one and one, or you’d lose count. Sighting the two stems that you’re going to pick next sounds impossible, but it obviously isn’t. Generally, though, Kizzy thinks the quality of the bunches picked by this method is not so good; there’s a higher proportion of short bunches (niners), torn sticks, buds too undeveloped or already showing yellow. Someone might have a word; but part of the skill of any piece-work is to know what you can get away with.
The someone is the “ganger” (gangmaster). It’s a hard job and some gangers are cunts. But whatever might be said, you’ve just got to take it if you want to keep working. Things can be harsh. Language barriers, with all their potential for silence and evil, are the norm. Groups of same-language workers tend to pack together, protecting their own, wolfish to others. No-one needs to mix, because they’re not staying. Resentment, exploitation, allegations, squalor. Perhaps it’s got worse, as the papers are now saying. The recent drowning of nineteen Chinese cocklers in Morecambe Bay has made the whole subject of foreign workers into news, some of it frankly xenophobic (there’s a fertile soil in confusing the issue with asylum-seekers, also fears of British jobs swamped by an influx of Romanies from the more desperate ends of the expanding EU.) This is not, if it ever was, an idyll. *
[* I wrote this in 2003.]
A rogue is any daffodil which is not the variety that’s being grown in that line. One of the poorly-paid late-season jobs is roguing – which always used to mean uprooting the rogues and chucking them down the tin-mines (where they often sprout) but might now mean spotting them with a systemic herbicide. The pickers are fascinated by the beautiful variety of blooms but they don’t know the names of them, so they make them up on the day. Fury’s fangs, she called one of the curly, very double varieties with a split trumpet of orange.
At the beginning of the season, which may be before Christmas, the bunches are better paid; Kizzy got 10p a bunch once. But the working day is short, and it’s slow going. You are searching for precocious growth, and nipping it deep in the bulb. She felt she did quite well to make £40.
You ought to get a better rate for “ducats” (or perhaps “duckets”) too. These are exceptionally tall daffodils, much prized by flower-arrangers. The stem-length makes them awkward, and you have to pick them long. They easily get damaged and you hope for a windless day, which you don’t always get in mid-February.
Kizzy makes money to spend on the bus. She’s got an inverter now, which turns the 12V leisure battery into 240V for her arc welder. One day she drove up to Roche’s Rock, and watched two climbers on the face. “Perhaps you’d like to have a go,” they said, and she did. “Climb with your feet,” they shouted. They were instructors, but I think she surprised them.
In summer when the weather and the tourists come, she does hair-wrapping. Last time some guy came up and tried to pressure her: “Do you realize you should be charging such-and-such a rate, you’re making us look bad.” Seems there’s a hair-wrap cartel.
Kizzy gave me one of the bags of rubber bands that are thrown out to the pickers. It weighs maybe half a kilo, and through the clear plastic the 20,000 rubber bands look like a snakepit. As an object in my bookish room it feels totally wrong, like a sack of cement, or an engine.