Climb the ladder, pick, pick, pick, and climb down again with 45 pounds hanging in front of you. Drop the apples in the wooden bin and get back up that ladder. It’s hard work, but you get to be outside and earn good money picking apples.
You’re paid a set amount for each bin you fill. Bins are four feet by four feet and two feet deep, and will hold about 1,000 pounds of apples. When I picked apples more than 15 years ago, I was paid $13 per bin, and could fill one in an hour.
Now, at least in bumper years when labor is short, growers pay up to $28 per bin, and they say experienced workers can fill one bin per hour.
The jobs are temporary and it’s hard work, but picking apples is also a fun way to get outside and make some money.
A Day in the Life of an Apple Picker
Here’s a typical routine. Strap on a picking bag and fold up the bottom to close it, tying the strings that hold it shut. Place the ladder carefully, both for your own safety and so you don’t damage the tree. Twist the apples as you pick them, to keep from breaking the tips of the branches.
When the picking bag is full, which will be about 45 pounds of apples, climb down. Loosen the strings to open the bottom of the bag over a bin so the apples gently spill into it. Repeat until the bin is full. And yes, your back will feel it after a few hours.
I worked with two friends, and we were paid cash at the end of each day. We could take breaks anytime or even leave for an hour or two. The owner of the orchard didn’t mind because he was paying by the bin, not by the hour. Cranking up the radio was fine too.
I enjoyed the work, even when the snow started to fall (it was early November in Michigan) as we finished up the juice apples. But if you want more than a pleasant outside job — if you want to make good money — you have to be strategic.
How to Make More Money Picking Apples
To increase your average hourly pay when picking apples, try one of these strategies:
- Learn to pick quickly
- Work during labor shortages
- Pick large varieties
- Pick juice apples
- Pick when there’s a heavy crop
Let’s look at each of these options in detail.
I picked about 50% faster after a few days of experience, so don’t get discouraged if you’re barely making minimum wage at first. Watch experienced pickers to see what they do, and try different methods. For example, I found climbing the trees to be faster than using ladders at times, but some growers will not allow this.
During the 2012 season, one Washington apple grower was short 200 pickers due to a good crop and a lack of immigrant labor. Rates in the area went to $28 per bin. Growers in the Pacific Northwest are expecting another record apple harvest and labor shortage in 2014, so it could be another good year for pickers.
Pick Big Apples
If you can, try to find work picking big apples. Big or small varieties take about the same amount of time to pick per apple, but it takes far fewer big ones to fill a bin, so you’ll fill them faster.
Pick Juice Apples
You can pick apples used for juice more quickly than apples for eating. We were allowed to shake them loose onto tarps, since minor bruising is not a concern when making juice — they’re juiced soon after picking, before dents can become rotten spots. The bins filled quickly, and we were paid the same per-bin wage.
Choose Loaded Trees
In some years, the branches are covered with apples — to the point of almost breaking from the weight. You can fill your bag twice as fast as when you have to constantly reposition your ladder due to slim pickings.
Finding Picking Jobs
The University of Illinois says there are commercial apple growers in 36 U.S. states. The top producers are Washington, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Virginia. You’ll also find commercial growers in five Canadian provinces.
The work season varies according to region and the variety of apples that are grown in each orchard. Some early varieties ripen as soon as late July, and other apples are picked far into November.
On PickingJobs.com you can click on a state (or country) to find job offerings. Most listings have nothing to do with picking (they include loan officer positions in agricultural areas, for example), but below the job listings you’ll find a directory of farms and orchards, each with a list of crops, harvesting seasons and phone numbers. Call the orchards closest to you to see if they’re hiring.
Your Turn: Would you consider picking apples to make some extra money?