Eli Denny, who can clean an apple tree as fast as any man alive, braced his feet and knees to balance himself high on a narrow 22-foot ladder and used both hands to pick apples into a metal bucket strapped to his chest.

When the bucket was full of 40 pounds of apples, Denny climbed down the ladder and dumped them gently into a wooden bin, a process he repeated over and over again during his 10-hour day.

As the champion picker here in the "apple capital of the world" Denny makes more than $5 an hour at a piece rate of 30 cents a bushel. By working long hours and up to 7 days a week, he can save $1,000 during the September to November picking season to take home to his wife and two children in Jamaica. The per capita income there is $968 a year.

Denny is one of some 3,000 Jamaicans imported this fall to harvest the apple crop from Virginia to Maine. With his skill, endurance, eagerness to work and lack of U.S. citizenship, he embodies the complex problem of the alien farm worker in America. It is a problem that has set East Coast growers and the U.S. Labor Department at each others throats.

Denny has been working with a 16-man crew in an orchard belonging to the five Russell brothers near Winchester. The crew hits the orchard by 7 a.m., and, on the average, the men work about 48 hours a week at $4 an hour. The minimum rate is $2.63, but a worker who can't surpass that at the piece rate is not likely to last.

As the calypso sound of Caribbean voices rang through the trees, the pickers moved quickly up and down the narrow ladders, one man to a tree. They dropped the apples into canvas-bottomed buckets, and when the buckets were full, they released the ropes that held the canvas bucket bottom shut and let the apples slide gently into a wooden bin. Bruises result in lower grading and lower profits for the grower.

Then the ladder was maneuvered to an unpicked spot on the tree and the process was repeated.

Apple picking is neither impossible nor complicated but each step must be repeated over and over, hour after hour.

"It is not too hard because we are used to hard work," said Lloyd Reid, who has been picking American apples for 14 years. For a man not used to hard work, however, it would be killing.

For men like Denny - who once picked 330 bushels in a single, $99 day - the apple picking jobs are a major economic opportunity. And as the Labor Department points out, an alien worker can work only for the grower who has hired him. If he has complaints he can quit and go home but he may not change jobs. He may not demand a raise.

The result is what the Labor Department calls a "docile" work force and what the growers call a "disciplined" work force.

The men have come without families by airplane to Florida and by bus up the East Coast with one purpose to work. They are, in the view of the Frederick County growers who paid their way and want four million bushels of apples picked, a perfect crew.

Then Jamaicans have only one problem. They are not U.S. citizens, and by law U.S. citizens must have first chance at jobs before aliens can be imported to perform them.

The growers contend they must import the foreign laborers because American citizens cannot be found to do the work. A federal judge in Virginia agreed and ordered the Labor Department to allow the importation of up to 5,000 aliens to harvest the apples.

This, Despite the fact that there are 9 million unemployed workers in the United States.

Many of these workers live in inner city areas, where unemployment reaches as high as 40 per cent. Labor Department officials, however, discount the possibility of using inner city youths to pick apples on a number of grounds, ranging from morale to the short worker season.

"To what extent would (working in the apply harvest) contribute to a long run plan for inner city youths to become permanently employed?" asked Bert Lewis, director of the United States Employment Service. Others say that urban support programs like food stamps and welfare, which prevent unemployment from translating into hunger, are additional reasons why U.S. workers scorn the ads.

Lewis estimates, however, that there were 100,000 unemployed U.S. farm workers in August and that domestic apple pickers can be found to replace the Jamaicans.

Local sources of seasonal labor have disappeared, according to Delmer Robinson, president of the Frederick County Fruit Growers Association. Winchester is dominated by the huge canneries and cold storage warehouses that handle and process the apples into sauce, juice and vinegar. There are associated plants that make cans, jars, boxes, bins and pallets and the local work force takes these jobs.

West Virginians picked the harvest before World War II, but the Army and the industries of the Midwest lured then away.

For several years, German prisoners of war picked the apples and then workers from the Bahamas came to pick. That island chain boomed in the 1960s, drying up that source and the Virginia growers began using Jamaicans.

Crews of about 750 American agricultural laborers worked in the orchards in the early 1970s, but now only about 250 American migrant workers are employed in the county, Robinson said.

Labor officials contend that the presence of the Jamaican workers is a major reason for this. The availability of the aliens has made it possible for the growers to keep pay levels steady at a time of sharply rising costs and the U.S. crews have moved into other crops where they can make more money, they said.

Labor spokesmen agreed that federal policy is aimed at cutting down the number of U.S. migrant laborers and stabilizing workers in permanent jobs, but they say there are still plenty of mainland migrants available.

And beyond the mainland migrants there are Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizens on an island with 20 per cent unemployment and a per capita income of $2,200 compared to the $5,941 on the mainland.

It is the Puerto Rican issue that has caused the recent hostility between the growers and the Labor Department and led to a series of lawsuits and accusations.

Two seasons ago, an attempt to put Puerto Rican pickers into the apple harvest broke down. Last year, however, more than 600 Puerto Rican workers arrived to pick apples on the East Coast.

The result, according to the growers, was "dismal." Only 153 of them finished the season, 48 worked two days or less and 94 more failed to finish the first week, the growers say. The growers claim that the program cost them a million dollars in transportation costs, crop loss due to a slowed harvest and other expenses.

The growers say that the men had never worked in agriculture before, that the language barrier was a serious problem and that the growers were hit by a record number of unjustified lawsuits and complaints.

Labor Department spokesmen counter that the growers had a chance to screen the workers before they came and that the growers didn't want the program to succeed.

Lewis said he hopes that as many as 1,500 Puerto Rican workers, all screened to insure agricultural backgrounds, can be brought in for this harvest. "We are doing what we can on the supply side," said Lewis, "but let's face it, if the growers want to they can make it uncomfortable for qualified Puerto Ricans, too."

"As soon as this harvest is over, we will analyze what happened and begin planning for an improved program next year. We want to see that growers get their crops picked and that U.S. workers get jobs before foreigners do," Lewis said.

"If we are able to sell U.S. growers and Puerto Ricans, there would be less need for Jamaicans," Lewis said. "It looks theoretically possible to end the use of aliens."

That is a view that saddens R.W. Johnson, a handsome white-haird Jamaican who has been working U.S. crops since 1947.

Johnson, who was delighted when his government moved to take majority control of U.S. Mining interests in his homeland, said, "Seeing the value of us Jamaicans, the program continue for many years. But now your government is fighting against the program."

"So the world goes," he said, shaking his head.