Lifestyle

Picking, shearing a top pear

by
March 08, 2018

Bernie Constable has been picking pears at Valley Star orchard in Lemnos for 25 seasons, along with sheep shearing

Bernie Constable has been picking pears at Valley Star orchard in Lemnos for 25 seasons, along with sheep shearing.

For 25 years, Bernie Constable has strapped a picking bag to his back and walked the fruit-lined orchards of Lemnos.

He has been picking pears at Valley Star orchards for 25 seasons, making the trek from Ballarat each Sunday night to pick fruit.

With decades of experience under his belt, Mr Constable is one of the more accomplished pickers in the industry, tackling the elements each day to make a living.

For more than three decades, Mr Constable has tested his body, spending half the year on the orchard and the other half travelling Victoria shearing sheep.

He started shearing in 1986, four years after he first started picking.

However, a fork in the road quickly followed after his involvement in the 1992 union movement left him in a shearing ban.

‘‘The farmers wouldn’t employ me because I was a union member, so fruit picking became very important for me to make a living,’’ he said.

‘‘I had to become a very good fruit picker.’’

Mr Constable said despite the hard times, he was thankful for his time spent in the pear industry as this was how he met his wife.

He described in great detail the story of how he found himself picking grapes in Robinvale alongside an English backpacker, who he soon married.

After being laid off while picking pears for a large orchardist in Ardmona, Mr Constable said a coin toss between friends saw him make the trip to Robinvale and begin a journey he would never regret.

A typical week for Mr Constable during season time involves driving 250km from Ballarat to Shepparton each Sunday night, picking eight to 10 bins of pears a day, then driving back home to his family on a Friday night after a hard day’s work.

With a lot of time spent on the road, he said he had plenty of time to calculate the 100000km, or thereabouts, he had travelled in the 25 seasons he had worked at Valley Star.

‘‘It is tiring, sometimes it can be a bit of a trial, but at least this season I have got a car that’s got air-conditioning,’’ he said.

While decades have passed since he has been on the farm, Mr Constable said he had seen the introduction of new technologies which had changed the way fruit pickers operated.

New machinery and aluminium ladders have helped him and others in the industry save time and protect them from overarching safety risks.

While many changes have had a possible impact on the industry, Mr Constable believed some had been met with dismay.

With a sigh and a change in tone, Mr Constable acknowledged the introduction of contractors which, he believed, had the biggest impact on the fruit industry in his 36 years of picking.

In his view, their advance made it harder for locals to get a job on the orchard, believing they had a detrimental effect on the industry.

‘‘I would not like to see the industry abandoned to contractors,’’ he said.

‘‘I urge people to give it a go, they might like it... it’s hard work but reasonable money.

‘‘It is too good an industry to give up to contractors.’’

Mr Constable’s days involve an early start, getting as much picking done in the morning before the brutal afternoon sun sets in.

In his prime, he said he would aim to pick one bin in 55 minutes, but he acknowledged with age and physical strength that’s not possible any more.

When asked what makes a good picker, he said he did not subscribe to the theory of a strong back and a weak mind.

‘‘I’d say working at a system and being able to mentally force yourself to keep going,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s hard work to make a dollar you have to be doing it at a speed and maintain that for eight hours.’’

While Mr Constable has many stories from his time on the orchard, he credited his enjoyment of the past 25 years to the owners at Valley Star.

‘‘They’re good people to work for, when you find a good orchard you stay with them,’’ he said.

‘‘Their pears are reasonable and they’ve looked after me with somewhere to stay... they’re all the elements a fruit picker needs.’’

While some may say Mr Constable leads a strenuous life, he believed going from sheep shearing to fruit picking was somewhat of a holiday.

While the nature of his work can have serious effects on his body over time, he hoped to continue picking fruit for as long as possible.

‘‘The fruit industry has been good to me because I have been able to raise three kids... and allowed me to stay in the shearing industry,’’ he said.

‘‘I’ve never had any problems shearing because of my back... I’ve always credited that to the fact I spend eight to 10 weeks a year reaching upright.’’

‘‘I don’t know how many more seasons I have left in me because that’s just the nature of it.’’

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