"It's the first time I've been so far from D.C. I was up in Montgomery County once, but I think this may be my first and last day picking apples. I don't think I can handle it," and 21-year-old Rickey Taylor, an amiable but unemployed high school dropout who spent last Friday picking fallen apples in a Blue Ridge Mountain orchard.
Taylor and eight other unemployed Adams-Morgan youths, including one 18-year-old girl, were testing a District 4-H theory that some of Washington's estimated 30,000 unemployed teen-agers might find health, happiness and some money among the scenic and short-handed orchards of Northern Virginia - where farmers claim they must import alien work crews for harvest jobs few Americans will do.
A return visit to the apple orchards is scheduled this week for Adams-Morgan youths. If these pilot trips are considered successful a much larger summer-in-the-orchards program will be tried next year, according to Ward I (county) extension agent Atif Harden, an Amherst College graduate who, until last week, had run only bicycle safety clinics and other urban programs for 4-H Clubs and community groups in the Adams-Morgan area. Washington now has eight full-time extension agents conducting 4-H programs in the District (one for each of the city's eight political wards), as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded cooperatives extension program.
"What if there weren't any migrant pickers or any foreign workers to harvest corps and we had to get city people out here, how would we make it attractive to them, what would it take to make them want to come?" Harden asked rhetorically among the thousands of Delicious apple trees facing his crew of nine inner-city youths.
A few hundreds yards up the hill, a migrant labor crew from Florida was roaring through the trees like a windstorm. Several of its 27 members would pick more than 200 bushels each during the day - netting each of them about $60 at the going picker price of 30 cents a bushel. Washington's inexperienced pickers, unaccustomed to being bent double for eight hours a day, moved more slowly and picked an average of 35 bushels each, netting them about $10 each.
Although the Washington youths will be interviewed extensively as part of the pilot project, their initial reactions among the apple trees of Hill High Orchards in Round Hill, Va., the largest apple farm close to the District, were mixed.
"Yuk," said pamela Perry, as she scrounged in the poison-ivied under-growth beneath the apple tree for "drops," the fruit left after the treeborne crews of pickers pass by. They are made into cider and applesauce. "I only came 'cause Fannie Hill asked . . . told me to come. I didn't have nothing to do so I came," said Perry, who has a part-time job as a photographer for the D.C. Manpower Development Commission.
Fannie Hill is the volunteer community organizer for the Adams-Morgan area "who knows almost everybody and called some people and got volunteers," said Alan Oliver, another 4-H program director Like Harden, he had left a desk job to don bib overalls and join in the harvest experiment.
"The only way to tell if we can match the shortage of apple pickers with the unemployed in Washington is to try, even if our pilot program involves only a few kids," said Oliver.
"We're not attempting to make migrant laborers of them. I doubt urban Washingtonians would want to come out here and work for a week or more at a time. But some kids might want to come out for a couple of days, especially if their friends came."
Theodore Allen, 19, a 1976 Roosevelt High School graduate who has been unemployed for a year but hopes for a Post Office job soob, seemed to enjoy his day in the country. "Apple picking's all right. It don't bother me too bad. It's kind of fun doing something you ain't used to."
"While most of the youths worked hard all day, they were disappointed when they got paid," said Oliver. "One told me 'you mean I worked all day for $10, that's less than the minimum wage.' But when I asked what he would have been doing if he hadn't gone to the orchards he said 'playing basketball.' I think there's got to be more money to make it worthwhile picking apples but I also think the kids worked hard and well and want to work, and generally enjoyed a beautiful day in the country," Oliver said.
Willie Gainey, organizer of the migrant Florida work crew, which travels in an old school bus from southern citrus orchards and water-melon and peach farms as far noth as the Virginia apple orchards, said, "Maybe next year we can recruit some in Washington. I think the kids, if they came in a group with friends, would have a good time. In the evening we play basketball, Ping - Pong and pool. And once you learn how to pick and get in shape - you're sore like in spring training in the beginning - why then you can earn some money."
Apple picking is one of the poorest-paying of all harvest jobs, however, Gainey said, with most farmers paying pickers only 30 cents a bushel. The piece rate was 27 cents a bushel two to three years ago, said Gainey, and if farmers weren't able to bring in foreign works crews, he feels, the pay would have to go up.
About 3,000 Jamaican laborers have been working East Coast orchards this fall white apple growers and the Labor Department continue what has become an annual dispute over the issue of importing foreign labor.
But the idea of transporting the nation's urban unemployed out into the countryside where harvesting and other farm jobs are going begging, "is one we'll be looking at over the next few months as a possibility for next summer," says Oliver, a former Peace Corps volunteer who would like to see more "urban-rural interaction" in this country."These nine kids and their day in the orchards will help us."