Apple-pickers in Franconia

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And here comes the story about the apple pickers in the area where I live – and do observations on resilience as well. It is a hillside area, its centre about 40 km from a big city, the area is patched with little villages, the space between them holds meadows, fruit tree fields and single fruit trees, grain, corn and potato fields, and small patches of forest.

Driving by the outskirts of B.-Dorf, a neighbor village, I passed two patches of each 4 or 5 old apple trees, situated aside a patch of shrubby bushes, on a meadow, which is cut by a new road, leading to a construction site where a the ground for a new supermarket is laid – B.-Dorf has no more active fulltime farmers and a more central position for shopping and business. Straightly on the meadow there is an old VW van and a Renault Kangoo combination car, and three adults with children are picking apples from the trees, their car boots filled with kid’s buckets, sacks and shopping baskets full of apples. As I approach from a 100 m distance, they start looking at me, a kid points, they seem to get nervous, which makes me withdraw after a 10 minutes observation from my car. Their license plates are from one of the nearby big cities. Two days later I pass by again, noticing that two of the old apple trees have been cut to give way to a provisory construction path.

Driving on to E.-Dorf the first day, I leave the state street to enter a smaller street leading to E.-Dorf, on its left sided by an alley of about 20 apple and pear trees, aged about 20 years. Between the 4th and the 5th tree I notice a silver combination (an old Hyundai pony or the like) car which had passed the small stripe of grass between the road and the bicycle path, standing between the trees, car boot open and filled with white plastic sacks full of apples. The car’s owner is busy quickly picking apples from the trees.

Talking to my neighbours, a few of which do small scale fruit growing and sales, and all of them participate in the fruit-related gift economy, it turns out that my observations do not stand alone, as almost everyone had made similar observations this year. There is not much criticism, just ‘they’d better ask’, and ‘they should not go into fenced land’, and ‘they even tried to pick my backyard walnut trees before I drove them off’ in a laughing way, and this criticism is balanced by statements like ‘our fruit are obviously better than those from the ALDI supermarket’, or ‘better they take them apples home than having them rot on the ground’. It is also consented that families with children should not be criticised for such picking practices, as – this is a common understanding in those villages – children need to be fed almost all the time, and they should eat healthy fruit instead of supermarket sweets.

Although the fruit prices went down through the last decades, and also a very common traditional kind of huge apple trees is regarded ineffective to be picked commercially, which led to a decline of commercial apple and plum growing, there is a very developed kind of mixed economy about the fruits. Some are sold to fruit wholesalers despite the low prices, as a kind of side income in cases where labour does not count – instead of watching TV the family will go out and pick their apples, plums or cherries. There is also small roadside retail sale, but there is also a whole range of sharing and gift economy about the fruit, so a rich harvest will be shared with relatives and neighbours, with defined, loose or no expectations on counter gifts – those practices could fill a book. Fruits play a strong role in the collective and symbolic identity of the village people (there are villages named after apples and cherries, some others’ village coats of arms show fruit, and there are some fruit feasts through the year), although there are hardly any persons who live from agricultural incomes alone, and most inhabitants do not at all participate in market-related agriculture. Fruit growing also has intergenerational rationality, as the fruiting period of a tree may range up to 50 years. And, moreover, there is a very hidden notion of collective prosperity and fertility, as many children and many fruit are deemed as a lucky development for the village, and both goes together, as the children are said to benefit very much from eating fruit, and giving fruit to children is a kind of social investment in the villages future.

On the other hand, due to natural conditions, market logics and social change, fruit trees can be abandoned as nobody finds time to cut or to fertilize them, or they are not harvested due to low prices, or there are abundant harvests from time to time, there are still some fruit that go nor into markets neither into gift ecchange or sharing activities. Those fruit are usually slowly loosing their character of private property and become a common good. As the fruit don’t bear labels, the distinction whether a fruit is common or private property is hard to make. But there are informal rules about it: Sloes, brambles and rosehips are wild fruit to be picked by everyone, although old men from the village usually come by some urban earlybird sloepickers and tell them not to pick before the first frosty night. Don’t pick from trees or from fenced land, unless you’re allowed to. But you can pick up one bag of apples from the ground as an adult, and children can pick a handfull from the tree without asking, and if the tree is not fenced in. It is always welcome if you ask – and eventually stay for having a little chat. Children would be encouraged to pick fruit from the tree or from the ground, and the village mayor would also encourage poor families to collect fruit from the trees standing on public grounds. Or, the elementary school children would go out, collect apples, bring them to a cider press and take the applejuice back to school.

What the observed villages used to do with their fruit can in various respects be seen as a kind of collective resilience, embedded in socioeconomic and cultural patterns and practices, from sharing and gift to market economies, community and intergenerational solidarity, integrated into a framework of informal rules and cultural settings and practices, such as the knowledge of how to cut trees or when to harvest, the notion of apples as healthy child food, the social bonds and networks around the fruit economy, and the various symbolic representations of fruit in the folk culture, that keeps existing and adapting to modern life close to a big city.

Obviously, this year there are other actors mixing into this local economy of the fruit. Not just hitchhikers picking a bag of sloes or a handfull of apples, but individuals and families from nearby cities come out and strip apple trees completely off their fruit – which has never been happening before at that scale. Cars and clothings of the observed persons speak for the fact that they are not very well off, but not really poor, and their behaviour makes it quite likely that they had not asked for permission before. Nevertheless, they are tolerated, and what used to be a resilient practice of a few villages seems to get into relation with the resilient practices of nearby city dwellers in a time, when Germany still is well off, but some part of the population are stronger touched by the economic crisis that others. Nevertheless, the side of the city dwellers still needs to be observed more in this case of the fruit growing area in Upper Franconia.

Markus Promberger, April 7, 2015

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