Apr 23, 2010

The Oranges of Wrath

I grew up in Orange County, CA. Back in the 1980s, it lived up to its name. Every spring, my life was punctuated by the sweet smell of orange blossoms that heralded summer fun. By the time I was eight or so, that smell was gone, replaced by the smell of multimillion-dollar new construction. That orange scent always stayed with me though, bringing forth happy memories of my childhood.

Fifteen years later, both the orange blossoms and I have been transplanted to the Central Valley, and that smell is just as good as I remember. However, the scent of oranges now brings a reminder of the long work of harvest. Before living here, I never had an appreciation for the human demands of orange picking. It's expected that delicate fruits such as peaches and strawberries have to be carefully handpicked, often justifying their high prices. But oranges are hardy and plentiful- couldn't they be shaken from the tree like their neighboring crops of walnuts? No. This Valley is covered in thousands of acres of orange groves, each tree bringing forth a harvest of hundreds of oranges...and they all have to be laboriously picked, one by one.

The ladders lean precariously against the leaves of the tree, wide at the base and narrow at the top, and the workers wear a sack that will eventually be filled with about one hundred pounds of oranges. They advance up the ladder, filling the sack, reaching for the oranges in the middle of the tree, and then come down the ladder to place the fruit in crates that hold 400 pounds apiece. Too many times I've seen a worker that's been left hanging by his arms as the ladder slipped, with 80 or so pounds on his back. Fascia tears, creating hernias, shoulders dislocate, rotator cuffs strain, vertebrae compress as the picker falls and his sack falls on top of him. But the fruit needs to remain clean and the day finished for the worker to receive their pay, so back up the ladder he goes. I see him several days later in the clinic or ER, when he has a day off, after his hernia has strangulated, his arm hangs limply at his side, and he can't walk.

John Steinbeck wrote about this same ordeal in his 1939 book, the Grapes of Wrath. He writes about pickers who are starving, who work for almost nothing because its still better than the alternative, which is nothing. The Dust Bowl has abated, but the premise has not. Despite the establishment of a minimum wage, workers (especially illegal ones) have pay that is contingent on productivity and doesn't reflect the overtime worked. The creation of food stamps relieved hunger, but I wonder if it galls the pickers to pay at the store for the all-too-familiar fruit. Maybe available healthcare is better, but mass amounts of toxic pesticides used create high rates of cancers, lung problems, and birth defects. I should see only a few cases of DiGeorge syndrome, a rare type of immunodeficiency, in my entire clinical career. Instead, I've seen six cases in four months.

I still love the pungent, spring smell of orange blossoms. But now the happy memories of early childhood comes with an awareness of the effort and sacrifices made for these fruits. In saying grace, I used to thank God for our food, and the hands that prepared it. Now, I thank Him for the hands that picked it.


  1. Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is a favorite of mine and one of the best in American literature. The hardships portrayed there that existed during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl were deplorable, but I didn't realize that workers were still enduring such dangerous conditions. This should be more publicized--but by whom? Keep writing, Annie. G.Kay

  2. Wow...another great blog....