We have all heard the story of a friend who went cherry picking in the Okanagan and never returned to their old ways in the east. If you’re obsessed with this idea, we found an old man to answer all your questions. His tales of Californian vibes and rolling in cash are almost too good to be true!
Since the pandemic, farms have badly needed your help. There is a labour shortage since foreign workers are currently limited in their ability to come to Canada. Jonathan Veilleux, a 33-year-old professional harvester has been practicing the art of fruit picking for 18 years and answers all your burning questions. Here’s what to expect if you decide to work as a fruit picker:
Tell us about your journey as a picker. You seem to be a regular.
Eighteen years ago, I went to join a cousin who had been in the Okanagan for quite some time. When I finished high school, I wasn’t sure what to do. My cousin said to me: “Why don’t you come to the valley for cherry picking?” So, I sold my scooter for $2000 and booked a flight. When I got here, I had only $500 left in my pocket. The first year, I couldn’t even pick any cherries because of the frost. So I picked tomatoes for two months. Then I got lucky and regulars took me under their wing. It’s my 18th season this year! I also picked in Australia and Tasmania, I made a career out of it. Now I have people working for me.
What advice would you give to the rookie gatherer who wants to go out west to pick fruit but doesn’t know where to start?
Go for the adventure! I would say two things:
WE REALLY NEED PEOPLE. THERE ARE A LOT OF FARMS, A LOT OF JOBS. EVERY YEAR, THERE IS A GROWING SHORTAGE OF PICKERS.
2. Second, show up!
Do a little research on the internet and then jump in!
You will fall in love. The weather is so beautiful and hot. It hardly ever rains. The landscapes are incredible. You live in your tent in the orchards. It’s a bit rugged and it’ll take you out of your comfort zone.
This year there are a lot of new seniors in their early twenties. These are people from the city, and they’re tripping over it. They are happy and they work hard. After two weeks of work, I can already see how much they have evolved. I’m telling you: go ahead, pack your bag, and don’t bring too much stuff! Personally, I give newbies a chance, I know it’s not easy when you’re looking for a job. It’s fun for me to help people find a job, that’s what I’m here for. It’s not that hard to do, but when you’re not used to it, you definitely go out of your comfort zone.
Who is cherry picking for?
It is made for people who do not want to work every month of the year and who want to travel or go south during the winter. It is for those who are looking for freedom. You don’t spend any money and you work every day. Obviously, you take a day or two off when you feel your body needs it. Theoretically, you work from 5 a.m. until noon and then you have the rest of your day to go to the beach. I recommend it to everyone. Even those who work in offices and restaurants. You have to want to work hard and it’s not for the faint of heart, but it can be learned.
I worked hard when I started but had no idea how to do it right. You just have to give yourself the chance to learn. Your first season won’t necessarily be the highest paying one, but you’re going to be able to see if you like it and you’re going to meet some amazing travellers. You might even find a boyfriend or a girlfriend, who knows?
We hear two stories: either we strike it rich, or we come back poor. What can we expect money-wise?
It depends on a lot of things: on you, the season, if there was a frost in the spring, etc. If there are a lot of cherries, it is possible for you to make a lot of money. Even if you quit your $30-40/hour job and make $15/hour the first week, you’re going to make more and more money. You just have to give yourself the chance. Some people make $70/day the first few days, then it goes up to $140/day. For some varieties of cherries, you might even make $ 200/day. My best are making between $600-700/per day! You have to work hard and not be afraid of bugs. After a week you’ll really know if it’s for you or not. There is also a friendly competition between the pickers. It motivates people. It’s cool to see people improve. Personally, I encourage them and give them tips. I’m old, I’m in my 18th season, I know exactly where to place the ladder!
What has made you come back to harvest in the Okanagan year after year for 18 years now?
When I finished high school, I tried doing my CEGEP (GED in Ontario) and realized that I am not book smart. I had difficulty sitting still and listening. But I am street smart. I am ambitious, as in I like to get experience from company to company. The picking allows me to do just that. The thing is, I hate to work. I work a lot, but I hate working year-round. My sanity is worth more than money. If I want to go surfing, rock climbing, travel to Mexico, or travel anywhere else in the world, I can do it. Working two months allows me to go to hot countries for the rest of the year and enjoy it. At the back of my mind, I’m always thinking “How can I make just enough money to live?” “
You seem to be a great traveller. How does your career as a gatherer allow you to be nomadic? Do you think this job is a good fit for those who like to travel?
Yes! During your two months of work, you don’t spend a lot and you can save a lot of money. It depends on the person. Of course, it’s easy to spend money on beer! Over the years I have managed to save a lot of money for myself. Even if people aren’t official nomads, they may never want to go back to their hometowns. (Their parents might be angry with me.) Planting trees is so physical. I did both and cherry picking is easier for the money you’re gonna make.
How has cherry picking shaped your personality over the years?
It has its ups and downs. When I was younger, I had a big ego that I didn’t acknowledge at the time. It made me really competitive. At first, I wanted to meet nice people, then all I thought about was making money. I realized it wasn’t me, it was my ego. Spiritually, it really changed me. You meet all kinds of different people. Sometimes you meet older people who are wiser than you. Depending on where you are in your life, you take what makes you better and you let the rest go. It makes me emotional to talk about all this, it was life-changing.
What is the most intense situation that you have experienced picking fruit over the years?
IN 2013, I WORKED 70 NIGHTS STRAIGHT FROM MIDNIGHT TO NOON.
This was possible at the time because of the shortage of employees. I think night work would be more difficult for new pickers. It’s very intense.
Have you had bad experiences with some farms? If so, can you talk about it a bit more?
Yes, but less and less. The lack of manpower made many farmers not want to pay at the end of the contract. In the past, we had to break a few branches, let’s put it that way, to be able to get our money. Now we don’t really need to do that anymore. It’s a lot more chill now. For the newbies, fear not, you will get paid. To get contracts, write to me. If there are any hiccups, I will work them out directly with the farmers.
Your best moment?
I don’t know if it’s the best, but it’s definitely the coolest. I was woken up one fine morning very early by my tent crushing my face. It had rained overnight and a helicopter was out drying the trees. The helicopter was right over my face! Naturally, I was scared at the time, but I was also really stoked. With the sunrise, the helicopter and the trees, it was a really cool sight to see.
What would you say to those that are afraid of taking the leap?
ABOVE ALL, DON’T STRESS YOURSELF OUT. THERE WILL ALWAYS BE PEOPLE TO HELP YOU.
You are going to meet amazing people along the way. My other tips are not to be afraid and to pack light. Even if you live out of your car, you don’t need much. You will definitely find work: 120%! You will get paid. If there is any trouble, call me!
What are some must-see spots in the Okanagan?
When you finish the season, you can go rock climbing at Skaha Bluffs in Penticton or visit the hot springs in Nakusp (a little further). There is also the incredibly blue Kalamalka Lake. Then you can go visit the Boulder Fields in Kelowna, a cave that collapsed thousands of years ago. It is a really impressive place to hike or rock climb, especially in cooler weather.
If you are interested in trying out a cherry picking (or fruit picking) career, don’t hesitate to join Facebook groups.
Facebook groups to help you find a job as a harvester in British Columbia:
- The BC’s (25K members)
- BC’s (5.6K members)
- Okanagan Pickers (8.5K members)
- Okanagan Pickers (1.6K members)
- Cherry picking and tree planting CANADA, AUSTRALIA, NZ (6.6K members)
- BC Farmwork (6.4K members)
You can also write to Jo. He will be happy to help you find a job: email@example.com!
For those that have done it, what’s your best fruit picking story?
This article was originally published in French and adapted in English by Britney Claveau.