Here I’ll be sharing about my job as a blueberry picker/ grader/ packer that I’ve stayed on for one-third of my time spent in New Zealand!

I’m really loving writing about all my stories here because it brings back so much fond memories. It was a period when I was just living by the day and not worrying about REAL life. Every day felt like a dream and I was really working just to fund my travel the next day. So scroll down to walk down memory lane with me on what I worked as back in New Zealand!

I was a…

A. Blueberry picker

Blueberries. Antioxidants. Good skin. YAY.

That’s what I thought when I landed myself this job as a blueberry picker. I was looking forward to an endless supply of blueberries to stuff into my mouth and getting amazing skin thereafter. However, I was not even close to what I envisioned myself to be. I kept stealing glances around me to make sure no one saw me pick blueberries directly into my mouth. And I also worked doubly hard because I had to ensure the pile in the container around my neck grew! So fun but yet nerve-wracking each time a supervisor walked past and I had to stop chewing.

The onboarding experience

I worked with Gourmet Blueberries, one of the largest blueberry orchards in North Island. There were at least a hundred of us on my first day and I was impressed to see how structured the onboarding process was. I started out taking a picture at 7 am for my staff pass which we collected on the spot too. We stood in a long line queuing for our turn and the next thing I knew, my photo was taken and I had my staff pass in my hands. It turned out not too bad, fortunately!

We then sat through a training session when they taught us the know-how for picking blueberries. I like how someone with zero knowledge can also carry out the work because of how nicely structured everything was! The training lasted for about an hour and there we go, thrown out onto the field ready to start work officially.

Starting my career as a blueberry picker

My work hours as a blueberry picker is really flexible. They record our working time each time the supervisors scan our staff pass in and out of each blueberry row. In other words, we are not paid until we pick our first blueberry from the tree.

I wake up an hour before work for breakfast and also prepare myself mentally for a day of hard labour. Then, I would prepare and pack lunch to bring in as we typically eat amidst the blueberry orchards. It was just too much of a hassle to leave the orchard during lunch because of how deeply we are located in the vast orchards. My drive to work takes me 5 minutes and I loved it because that meant more sleeping time~

As soon as we arrive at the orchard, we collect our gear which consists of:

  • A wooden stool – For sitting or standing when we cannot reach the taller trees
  • A reflective sheet – For shielding the blueberries we picked from the sun
  • A plastic square container with a string – To hang around our necks for ease of picking

With our lunches and water bottles on our other free hand, we queue for the bus to get to the picking area. As we alight, we collect three more items:

  • A cart – To help with the load of blueberries that can get really heavy as we pick down a row
  • 2 green trays – To fill up with blueberries
  • A pair of gloves

These are basically the items required for my livelihood as a blueberry picker!

We would wheel our entire cart toward the rows of blueberry trees while the supervisor-in-charge allocates us to a row. They will scan our staff pass and sanitise our hands before we get to work. We get to decide our own lunch time and the time we end work too, so it’s a very interesting approach they adopt that relies strongly on my desire to earn some money.

Career progression

As a blueberry picker, there was also career progression! We each had various coloured ribbons that we tie on the strap of our staff pass, to show our progression as pickers.

  • Red – Novice/ Amateur picker still going through probation
  • Green – Can pick the right berries independently with little supervision
  • Yellow – Picks the right berries at a rate faster than the average picker
  • Blue – Seasoned picker that picks correctly and way more than the average picker

I never progressed any further after I got the green. Not complaining, I know where I stand HAHA.

Housemates or colleagues? How about both?

I applied for the job with my housemates as our ex-employer coincidentally fired us at the same time then. This is a funny story that I’ll keep for the next time. Work as a blueberry picker was ten times more fun because of my housemates/ colleagues. We coordinated our picking times so we left and started new rows together, and even had lunch together too. It ended up being like an entire afternoon of blueberry picking cum chit-chat session.

The fun part about working together is having this silent competition to see who gets home first. That’s because there was only one toilet at our homestay and the place housed nineteen people at its maximum capacity. So, it was an unspoken rule that the toilet is on a first-come-first-served basis.

It was also fun to have a common topic despite our international backgrounds and chat about how our day went each evening when we gathered back at our home then. Although we were in the same orchard, it was so vast that we do not see each other at times. Everyone’s version of their picking story for the day was different. It was especially funny to listen to the stories each had, from the type of blueberry they picked to stories about the supervisor they encountered that day.

These people has got to be the main reason why I stayed on in this job for the next month!

B. Blueberry grader/ packer

So not long after we began our career as pickers, the company had openings for graders/ packers in the packhouse. As a picker who puts in 95% of my best effort (5% gone to picking blueberries that went straight into my mouth) and am still unable to meet the minimum weight required for minimum wage, I decided that being a packer seems like a better deal.

Look at my performance sheet below and you can see that my average is at 4.32kg per hour. That was not even close to the average of six to seven kilograms per hour. The minimum weight to pick per hour changes every day or week depending on the supply of blueberries then.

So, I figured since it’s impossible to pick more than the average blueberry picker, it might be better to work as a packer instead! In addition, as a picker, I do not get paid for the time spent on getting into the orchard and walking from row to row or even queuing to get my blueberries weighed. This contrasts pleasantly with a packer who is remunerated from the first minute till the end of the workday.

The switch to a Blueberry Grader

So as a Blueberry Grader/ Packer, I had to report to work at 7 am sharp in the morning because the grading machine starts running then. We had to be at our designated spot along the grading and packing line to ensure everything runs smoothly. As soon as we arrive, we head towards our designated lockers to store our belongings, put our lunch in the oven and prepared to enter the packhouse. This is exactly how we looked like in a packhouse:

  • Thick warm clothing – To keep yourself warm at 8 degrees Celcius
  • Safety PPE: Bright orange vest – So people can see us and not ram a pellet of blueberries into me
  • Hairnet, gloves – To keep all the germs away
  • A phone – To sneak in pictures whenever we get a breather in between our job

We run our fingers through every blueberry that comes through the grading machine and pick out those that are too ripe, unripe or squashed/unfit to be eaten. The grading machine does the first level of sorting but some blueberries are just too sneaky and slip through the machine to get to where we are at. So, we were the last gatekeeper to make sure that only quality blueberries are packed and sold. We had to move really fast and throw blueberries into the respective boxes.

  • White box: For unripe blueberries
  • Grey box: For overripe blueberries
  • Red box: For squashed/rotten blueberries

The unripe blueberries are then further processed into jams, while the overripe ones are made into juices. That’s how packhouses reduce wastage to its minimum in the entire grading/packing process.

How it feels like in a freezer for 8 hours or more

I almost froze like a popsicle on my first day as a picker. Our workplace was an 8 degrees celsius packhouse, and I stay in it for 8 hours straight. Coming from a country that was summer all year round, I naively thought my clothes were thick enough to withstand that cold but how wrong was I! I remember feeling so helpless from the cold as I took toilet breaks just to run my frozen fingers under the hot water in the toilet, or crowd around the hot oven to get some heat during break time.

I was so under-dressed that every minute in the gigantic freezer felt unbearable. Blueberries felt painful then with every touch and I never thought I would ever have to feel that way about some harmless blueberries. However, I was really fortunate that my supervisor then had an extra jacket that saved me from further torture. I think I probably gave her a super desperate look that said “If you don’t give me a jacket now, I’m really…maybe…going to…I DON’T KNOW.” Just give me a jacket already 😀

Right after work ended that afternoon, we went to Kmart and shopped for winter work clothes. I bought a kids-sized black sweater, a men-sized grey joggers, and a Kathmandu jacket that literally saved the rest of my blueberry grading career. That’s how I looked like nearly every day at the packhouse.

Moving down the line to a Blueberry Packer

Packers are lined at the end of the production line in the packhouse. So in between the graders to the packers, the machine would pack the blueberries into little plastic containers that we see in supermarkets. It is automatically packed according to the weight set through the machine. Packers have to move really quickly to sort these containers into the pallets for shipment.

Again, it was a job of speed and accuracy as we have to ensure containers are packed in boxes of six, with the logos facing in the right direction. If we’re not moving at least as fast as the packs coming down the line, it would become congested in no time. Unfortunately, some containers burst open even then and the next scene we saw was blueberries rolling everywhere and getting squashed.

We had approximately two to three breaks each day, one 30 minutes break for lunch, and either one or two 15 minutes break for us to hydrate or use the toilet then. Such breaks felt so heavenly because we get to rest our tired legs, and thaw ourselves in the sun after being in the “freezer” for so many hours.

The length of each day is determined by the number of pellets we had to fill for the day. I worked an average of 8 to 10 hours everyday, including the scrub down we give the machines at the end of each day. We carried in pails of water, detergent, brushes, brooms and dustpans and scrubbed the entire machine from top to bottom, even the floors of the packhouse. This was the part I always look forward to because it meant the end of work for the day!

Once in a lifetime.

I had so much fun in the packhouse because of the awesome mates that I had a chance to work with. I still remember being really sad on our last day because those emotions felt over the past months were really a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, and it is these mates that would share the same memory as I had. That’s what made it even more special. We met each other with the thought that this might be the only time we’re going to be at the same place at the same time, and it made us appreciate our time together even more!

And I scored a picture with one of the best supervisors I could ever ask for! She’s a Maori and I always told her how I love the meaning behind each Maori tattoo she had. For hers, it mainly represented her strong love for her family and portrayed strength. It was really beautiful and because of the nature of our work, she was always covered from top to bottom and I never had a chance to see her tattoos fully. So one day we decided that she would have to show it to us before we left and that’s how I got that picture of her and her tattoos on our last day of work!

Not the end.

I guess this post got a bit out of hand and lasted so long! I have one last job experience that I want to share about so I’ll do that in another post. If you have not already, do have a read on my earlier working experiences in New Zealand doing loads of odd jobs that you cannot imagine!

Hope you guys enjoyed my stories so far and I’ll see you again next week!

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