Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Orange Reaping, or How Well Tom's Business Experience Translates to Oranges in Belize

Saying we’ve had a busy couple of weeks is an understatement. I obviously haven’t updated the blog, and as most of you who keep up with us via email know, neither of us has had much time to email either. For the first time since we’ve lived in Belize, we were actually on our old work schedule and getting a maximum of about six hours of sleep a night. But, what we’ve been doing has been making a little bit of money for us, which is a good thing since I’ve booked a trip to the US and airline tickets, along with the fuel prices, are climbing. I’ll try to summarize what we’ve been up to and break it up where possible, although it’s all a bit of a blur at this point.

The work week after the last blog entry was spent making preparations – for me, that meant getting ready for guests for eight days, and for Tom it meant planning for an orange reaping in our friend Mark’s grove. My jobs were very straightforward: get the room ready and make sure we had enough food on hand for at least the first part of the week since the US Memorial Day holiday weekend coincided with Commonwealth Day here, meaning that most stores would be closed at least Sunday and Monday. And, in fact, the preparations paid off because Shane and Monique arrived as scheduled on Friday, and despite the fact that Tom virtually disappeared – with the truck – from Sunday through the next Friday, things kept running smoothly here. It helped – a lot – that Shane and Monique are completely low maintenance guests, and since they were here to close on and then work on their land, they didn’t require any entertaining. In fact, they were worried that they were in the way since Tom was obviously running himself ragged, and I assured them that keeping them happy and fed was our business, which we, or in this case I, enjoy doing. I was really actually very glad to have them around because with Tom and Selwyn both at the orange grove all week, I would have been left alone, and Shane and Monique are very good company. They were busy trying to get things going on their land, but still had time to hang out here.

Tom’s jobs weren’t quite so clear since he’d never done any work in an orange grove, so he had to figure out what was needed to get the job done, then figure out how to get what he needed to do it, and then line it all up. When Mark was here a few weeks before the pick was scheduled to start, he spent the entire week running around talking to people about what was needed to reap the oranges, gathering information, and running back and forth to the Citrus Growers’ Association in Dangriga to get all the necessary paperwork done and to get bags. Mark reviewed all his findings with Tom, so they thought they had a pretty good handle on what needed to be done. Tom also discovered that one of Selwyn’s friends, Eric, and Eric’s father Javier had worked in the citrus operation in Cool Shade and had some idea of how things should run. Tom charged Selwyn and Eric with finding a crew to work the pick, and then went on a shopping expedition to get supplies for the pick, such as bungies that the pickers would strap around their waists to the 100 pound bags so they could pick efficiently. Tom also had to line up a tractor trailer to haul the oranges, and then had to figure out when the pick needed to start in order to get a trailer load picked and packed in the trailer and on their way to Dangriga within a three day window, which is how long the picked oranges will keep.

This is where the “what you don’t know CAN hurt you” factor kicked in, and things like not knowing how many bags the average picker can pick in a day really mattered. Why, you ask, didn’t Tom just ask the pickers how much they could pick? Well, he did ask the question, and got answers ranging from 20 to 80 bags a day. It turned out that most of the pickers Selwyn and Eric found had never picked before and had no idea what was involved or how long it would take, but that didn’t prevent them from giving Tom answers to his questions. What was even more disturbing than the fact that nobody knew how much they could pick was the fact that nobody other than Tom even thought that it mattered. You just pick til all the oranges are off the trees, right? And the fewer workers you have, the more money for each worker, right? Well, um, no, as with any business, certain requirements dictate how the process must work. The other thing the workers didn’t know was that Tom had his own business for twenty-some years, and while he didn’t have any experience in an orange grove, he has a whole lot of experience in putting together work processes and systems to get a job done within the requirements.

In this case, the factors were that the trailer held approximately 700 bags of oranges, the time from when an orange was picked to when it was heading down the road in the trailer couldn’t be more than three days, and good pickers can pick about 30 bags a day. That means (and I’m rounding here) about 250 bags need to be picked a day. If we figure that not all the pickers will be good, it’s safe to say that about ten pickers are needed to get the oranges off the trees and bagged.

Then, it takes a crew of three or four and a driver to run a pickup or tractor through the grove to get the bagged oranges out of the grove and into the trailer.

So, Tom knew on Sunday morning that he was heading down a rough patch of road when Selwyn and Eric got to the grove with five other guys, including the driver of the truck needed to pick the oranges up in the grove. Even with the vague information, Tom had requested that they get at least ten pickers, and then a few more guys to move the bags.

But, the “fewer people means more money for me” factor was more important to the pickers, plus the pick started on Sunday before a holiday Monday, so some of the pickers had to be back at real jobs or school on Tuesday, which didn’t leave much time to fill the trailer. Before the pick started, Tom thought he could get things going, and then just pop in and out to see how the pick was going. When the entire work crew of seven appeared, Tom immediately got them picking and headed into 7 Miles to find more pickers. Fortunately Julio, the chairman of 7 Miles, was home and willing to work, and he knew a few other guys who wouldn’t mind making some money. They all appeared at the grove before too long with their families, and everybody started to pick. That was also enlightening for Tom, who found, as he was running around gathering everybody’s counts, that the guy who said he could pick 80 bags in a day was on track to pick those 80 bags – with the help of four other pickers. The counts really mattered, because the pickers are paid by the bag, so Tom needed to keep close track of who was picking what. Most of the guys elected to work in teams, with the teams splitting the bag counts evenly among the team members. So, the 80 bag a day picker averaged, with his team, 16 bags a day per person. Hmmm…not quite the numbers Tom was expecting.

Fortunately for Tom, team leaders emerged from both the San Antonio and 7 Miles crews, with Javier, Eric’s dad, acting as foreman for the San Antonio crew and Julio the chairman acting as foreman for the 7 Miles guys. It was good that Tom had help with the two towns’ teams, because the other wrench in the works at this point was Mark’s fulltime caretaker, Julian, who wanted to work on the pick with his family and be paid for the pick on top of what he’s already paid for his caretaker duties. Julian is from Guatemala, and speaks only Spanish. Tom is doing really well speaking in Spanish, and he finds that he can usually make himself understood when he speaks, and he can understand most of what other people are saying if they speak slowly and think a little about their word choices. Julian refuses to play the game. He doesn’t – or won’t – understand Tom, and when he speaks to Tom he speaks very quickly, looks around at anything but Tom as he speaks, and won’t slow down or repeat what he says. Julio (the crew leader from 7 Miles) had to step in at this point and act as translator, and found that even when speaking Spanish, Julian did not want to understand that he wouldn’t be paid twice, but he kept working anyway although some of Julio’s crew later reported to Julio, who reported to Tom, that Julian had a steady stream of complaints about Tom starting with his assertion that Tom isn’t his boss because he doesn’t own the property and thus can’t tell him what to do.

All sorts of other little details were working to make Tom’s job more difficult. The San Antonio crew’s noses were a little out of joint because they didn’t see why Tom had to run off and get more people from 7 Miles. They still didn’t understand that the trailer had to be filled by Tuesday evening, and in their minds, Tom was taking their money and giving it to people from 7 Miles. Plus, there was all sorts of petty infighting going on among the San Antonio crew, with some pickers deciding that they would rather be haulers because picking wasn’t as profitable and glamorous as they thought it would be, so they were switching jobs in the middle of the day, which made it an accounting nightmare for Tom to figure out how to pay everybody since the baggers were paid by bag, but the haulers were paid at a day rate which had to eventually be converted to an hourly rate, and nobody but Tom was trying to keep track of any of this.

The 7 Miles crew was working hard and doing well, but Tom learned that many people Julio had approached about the job didn’t want to work in that grove because the man that owned it before Mark hadn’t maintained it, and the last time they’d tried to pick there they were forced to fight their way through waist-high weeds and pick from trees that weren’t bearing much fruit because the grove wasn’t maintained. When the 7 Miles crew went home Sunday night they reported that the conditions were better, so more pickers from 7 Miles arrived on Monday.

Monday actually went pretty smoothly. A few more people came from San Antonio as well, and the job switching was kept to a minimum. Tom had a brief scare that they didn’t have enough bags to keep the pickers picking and bagging while the haulers moved the bags to the trailer.

The hauling was taking longer than expected because after about two months of very dry weather, it had rained the night before the pick started. The orange grove is about a mile down a driveway, which Mark had just had graded and filled with white mal. Neither Tom nor Mark knew that while white mal eventually packs hard enough to be almost like pavement, when it’s first put down and graded it doesn’t take much rain to turn it into a sticky white soup.

It was deep and unstable enough that the truckers couldn’t get the tractor trailer all the way back to the orange grove, which was the original plan, and had to park it near the house by the road, which meant the pickup trucks had to run a mile down and then a mile back up the sticky road to dump the bagged oranges in the trailer. To top it off, when Tom went down on one of the runs, he found Julian’s family (the caretaker) in the trailer throwing oranges out to take into their house. That ended quickly enough, but it didn’t help Tom’s feeling that pretty much anything that could slow down the job was bound to happen.

Tuesday started well enough. Tom had figured out how much had been picked and hauled the previous two days, and determined that if they kept working at that rate, they would have the trailer full and ready to pull out by the end of the day. Things were going well enough until the driver of the pickup doing the hauling out of the grove started to whine that he wasn’t getting paid enough. On Saturday, Tom had agreed on a price with the driver and the driver’s father, and had agreed to pay gas costs, plus a day rate for the driver equal to what the other day laborers were getting, plus a day rate for the truck which was about triple the day rate of the laborers. Suddenly, on Tuesday afternoon, Esaau, the driver, started demanding more money. He took a load of oranges from the grove to the trailer, and then said he wasn’t doing any more until Tom agreed to pay him more. Tom told him that since he was driving and moving bags he was already planning to pay him a hauler’s day wage on top of the driving wages, but that wasn’t good enough. This guy is known for having a hot temper, and Tom figured that he thought he had him over the barrel, and by throwing a fit at the gringo in front of the other workers, the gringo would cave and give him more money.

What Esaau didn’t realize is that Tom is a man of his word, and when he agreed on the rate, that was that and he wasn’t going to up the rate just because somebody was being pushy. The argument escalated, in front of the entire work crew. Tom finally pointed out that if Esaau walked off the job at that point, about 100 bags would end up having to be thrown away because they wouldn’t be good when the next trailer pulled out Friday night. In Tom’s mind, it was perfectly clear that Esaau would be costing his work crew the $1 per bag they were expecting to be paid, because Esaau’s hissy fit was the cause of the waste. The San Antonio work crew didn’t see it like that; the oranges wouldn’t get to the plant so Mark wouldn’t make any money from them, BUT they’d already picked and bagged them, so they deserved to be paid. Unfortunately, the “Belizeans vs. the Gringo” attitude kicked into full gear, which is that gringos are always trying to take advantage of Belizeans, plus gringos have unlimited money and if there’s any question as to where the money comes from, it comes from the gringo. The work crew perceived that Tom was threatening their income, and thought that it was very unfair that Tom would threaten to “punish” them because Esaau didn’t want to do his work, plus, from what he heard later, a few of them figured that Tom the Gringo was trying to go back on his word and pay Esaau less than the agreed upon price.

The thing that really bothered Tom about this exchange was that Selwyn was part of the San Antonio crew, and he never spoke up to tell the other guys that Tom is always fair and never goes back on his word. He told us later that he also thought that Tom was being unfair in threatening not to pay the pickers for the bags that would go to waste, and the whole teamwork concept went entirely over his head. This was a good lesson for us that despite the fact that we’re getting along very well here, we’ll always have to fight at least a little unconscious racism; gringos have all the money, and it’s the Belizeans’ job to fight it out of the gringos’ tight fisted hands. That’s not exactly how we see it, but at least we know what we’re fighting.

The good news is that when Tom told Esaau that if he drove away, he wasn’t getting a cent for any of the three days he worked, Esaau consented to pick up another load of bagged fruit. This left about 50 bags in the field, which Tom counted before he left the grove after watching the almost-full tractor trailer head down the Georgeville Road and then on to Dangriga. The truck was scheduled to come back on Wednesday morning, giving the crews three days to pick and two and a half days to fill the second load of 700 bags. In the meantime, Tom had arranged to meet Esaau in San Antonio to pay for his gas, which is what he had also done on Monday night. Although he wasn’t sure if Esaau would even be there, he was, and Tom was shocked to find that after a full day of hauling, he needed less than half the gas he’d needed the night before, when he had assured Tom that the truck was full when he started, and all the gas used that day was used to haul oranges. Esaau didn’t really want to talk to Tom, but Tom told him that he’d be willing to talk to him when Esaau thought about what happened. Sure enough, as we were just finishing dinner at 9:30 that night (fortunately Shane and Monique didn’t mind the 9:00PM European dining hour since Tom didn’t get home before 8:00PM all week), we heard a truck and saw headlights pulling up the driveway. Tom went out, and it was Esaau with an apology, saying that he’d gone home and talked to his father, and his father told him that Tom was giving him an even better deal than they’d negotiated since he was paying Esaau as a driver and a hauler, and that Esaau had just f***ed up (his words) big time. Esaau asked if Tom would let him drive for the rest of the pick, but Tom had to tell him that he’d already found another hauler.

Fortunately, on top of being big enough to apologize to Tom on Tuesday night, Esaau was also big enough to show up for work as a picker on Wednesday. This turned out to be a really good thing, because Esaau went from jerk to hero the next day when the alternate hauler had a family emergency and couldn’t work. At first the lack of a hauler didn’t matter. It seems the trucker picked up the job’s bad luck, and he ended up stuck in Dangriga with a full truck. First, another truck broke down in the yard, backing the rest of the trucks up until it was fixed. Then another truck in front of our driver’s dropped off a whole truckload of bad fruit, which had to be sorted before anybody else could dump their load. The driver ended up sitting in line until Wednesday night, but when Tom called him to find out where he was he told him that he’d have the truck there by Thursday morning. That meant that there was a bit of sitting around on Wednesday afternoon while the haulers waited for the truck that never came, but it turned out to be a good thing for us since we had a dinner date with Shane and Monique at Noah (our realator) and Marayla’s, and we actually managed to get there on time.

As we were having a very pleasant dinner, Tom mentioned that he hoped the rain would hold off so the tractor trailer could park at the grove rather than at the end of the driveway by the house. Mercedes, Marayla’s sister, told him that she’d heard it was going to rain, but Tom was hoping for the best. At that point we hadn’t looked at the weather reports and didn’t know that the Eastern Pacific’s Tropical Storm Alma was going to spend Thursday and Friday dumping moisture on Belize as it crossed Central America to the Western Caribbean, where it weakened but then joined up with some moist air in the Western Caribbean before becoming Tropical Storm Arthur, which would continue to dump rain on Belize until Monday. All we knew was that we woke up to rain Thursday morning.

Tom was at the grove before 6:00AM because he’d had the awful realization some time during the night that because they weren’t able to start filling the trailer on Wednesday, they would run out of bags for the pickers before the haulers could get the bagged oranges in the trailer, even if the trailer was there by 10:00AM or so. He started counting and figuring and found that not only were they going to be at least 200 bags short of what they needed to keep everybody working, but that 10 bags – bags and the picked fruit in them – had disappeared. When he went back through his numbers and talked to Julio and Javier, he realized that he’d counted 50 bags left in the field the night Esaau threw his fit, but when Javier did the initial count the next morning, only 40 bags were in the field, which meant that 10 bags had walked off overnight. The obvious suspect is the caretaker – who is also suspected of entirely clearing out three rows of trees prior to the pick – but nothing could be done to prove it, although the only way to get the oranges out is to drive by the caretaker’s house, and he and his family claimed that they didn’t see any oranges leaving the property in either case. In this situation, Tom determined that the pickers did need to be paid for the bags, since the caretaker and his family weren’t working with either of the town teams, and since the caretaker is costing Mark more than a few bags of oranges anyway. And, the one good thing about the rain was that it cooled everything off, so the three-day window could be stretched a little, and the 40 bags could be put in the trailer for Friday’s load to Dangriga despite Esaau’s fit.

Ten bags aside, Tom’s problem Thursday morning was to find more bags. He bought every available bag in San Ignacio, Santa Elena, and Spanish Lookout, and managed to come up with enough bags that the haulers were almost able to keep up with the pickers when the tractor trailer returned early that afternoon. Then, Javier suddenly realized that the man with the family emergency who had been going to drive the tractor had bags that he would rent or sell, so after running all over the Cayo District, Tom just had to go into San Antonio and buy the rest of the bags he needed from Edgar. While it would have been nice if somebody had remembered that Edgar had bags BEFORE Tom spent three hours and lots of gas running around and buying a few bags here and a few bags there, it was a relief to know that everything could be bagged and everybody could focus their efforts on getting the trailer full on Friday.

On Friday, even with the end in sight, the challenges continued. After raining all day Thursday and all Thursday night, the rain continued Friday morning. At this point I’d looked at the weather and knew that we were in the middle of a tropical storm threatening to become a hurricane, but the knowledge didn’t do anything to solve the problem. Esaau’s truck was no longer able to drive in the very muddy grove, so Tom didn’t know how the remaining bags could be moved from the grove to the trailer. Julio and his team thought of a guy in 7 Miles who had a truck with new tires, so Tom and Julio jumped in Tinkerbell to see if they could find the guy. They found him, and he was willing to drive, but…his truck had run out of gas a few miles from his house, so he didn’t have it. So, Tom ran home, grabbed all of our gas cans, and took off into San Antonio to buy gas for the truck. He drove back to 7 Miles, picked up Julio and the driver and went and filled the guy’s truck, and returned to the grove with the truck with the new tires, the new driver, and a few extra workers they’d picked up along the way. At that point, everybody chipped in to get the job done. The pickers had been forced to dump some of the fruit on the ground until the haulers could start to empty some bags, so once the haulers were underway and some bags freed up, the pickers filled the rest of the bags.

The new hauler ran through the grove picking up bags, and then a crew moved the bags from the new truck to Esaau’s truck, which was still able to go up and down the driveway. Extra guys jumped in to do the transfers from the grove to the first truck to the second truck to the trailer, and when it got so wet that even the truck with the new tires wasn’t able to get through the grove, everybody just pitched in and pushed every time it was stuck. Fortunately it was a small pickup, so manpower was able to move it! Everybody worked in the pouring rain and mud all day, and stayed until 7PM when the trailer was finally full. Friday night, Tom’s comment was that finally, on Friday, everybody was working as a team and doing what had to be done to finish the job.

Despite the many problems, the pick seems to have ended okay. Everybody was working together by the end, and when Tom received the drop-off numbers from the plant, he found that 99% of the oranges picked had been accepted. He actually found this about the first load on Thursday, which was good incentive to get the job done for the pickers because they had been told that they were working at the rate of $.80/bag, but that they would be compensated at up to $1/bag depending on the acceptance percentage. The second load also had a 99% acceptance rate, so Tom and Mark decided that 99% was close enough to 100% that all the pickers would be paid $1/bag, so they were making $.20 more per bag than they’d expected.

While the job finished on Friday night for most of the workers, Tom still had to figure out all the numbers. He was also getting a little pressure from some of the workers who wanted to be paid either on a daily basis, or before they went home Friday night. Tom had explained the pay strategy to them ahead of time, and told them that they would be paid when the pick was done AFTER he ran the numbers and figured out the per bag rate, and after he had the money wired to him from Mark in the US. Not everybody bought this explanation because some people seem to think that all gringos are wired in to some giant bank account which we can all access at any time, and they completely missed the point that Tom was a hired employee on the job, just like them, with the added disadvantage that he had not negotiated his own pay rate with Mark – although he had no worries about being fairly compensated. None of that kept people from showing up at our door over the weekend, or hailing Tom down when he was out driving.

Tom also had to figure out HOW to pay everybody, since most people had worked at multiple tasks and multiple teams with different pay rates and strategies, and on different teams as baggers, so lots of number crunching was needed. That’s the kind of job that Tom loves, so he worked on that all day Saturday and Sunday. The number crunching didn’t actually take all that time, but whenever questions arose about counts or who did what, he had to get in the truck and drive to San Antonio and/or 7 Miles to talk to Javier and/or Julio, a job that would have been much easier if there was any sort of communication system, phones, email, or whatever, set up out here. And, it was still pouring, and matters were made even more difficult because early in the week Tinkerbell’s ignition had gone on the blink, and starting her required Tom to crawl underneath and push a couple of levers under the truck every time he had to start the truck – lots of fun in lots of mud.

Finally, he had the numbers on Sunday night, so he emailed a spreadsheet to Mark to make sure he agreed with all the costs and payments. He went to Spanish Lookout on Monday to talk to Mark on the phone, get the money needed for the payroll, do some other errands, and see if a mechanic could figure out what was wrong with Tinkerbell’s ignition. Monday morning, he took off knowing that he would probably need to go to Spanish Lookout the long way because the ferry could be out of commission and the Iguana Creek Bridge could be flooded with all the rain we had. Selwyn worked here all day, and I was busy cleaning. That’s a whole different story, since the onset of the rainy season brought the winged termite horde, and while housecleaning isn’t really one of my strong points, the remains of the termite invasion require a massive spring cleaning. More on that later – the bottom line is I was busy all day, and didn’t even think about getting on the computer.

Selwyn left around 4:30, and around 5:00 I started to wonder if Tom might have left me a message on Skype, so I powered up the little generator and got online. No message from Tom, but I started surfing for news. I didn’t get too far before I realized that Belize was in the middle of a pretty serious disaster, with the lowlands flooded, bridges and roadways washed out on the Hummingbird Highway and the Southern Highway, and all the bridges to anywhere closed. You can see pictures of the flooding here. When I realized what was going on in the rest of the country, outside of our own little isolated world up here, I realized that it was a very good thing that Mark’s oranges made it to Dangriga when they did, because if they’d been a couple of days later they couldn’t have been delivered because all roads to the Dangriga plant were cut off; the citrus plant mentioned in a few of the pictures in the link above is where the oranges were delivered.

Sometime around 5:30PM, Tom left me the expected message on Skype, and said he would be home as soon as he found the tractor trailer driver, who had said he would be at home Monday evening, but wasn’t. Unfortunately, I had the sound turned off on my computer, so I didn’t get Tom live when he called, or I could have told him that the reason the driver wasn’t home was probably that he’s trapped in Dangriga. Tom finally gave up looking for him and came home anyway, so we’re not sure if that’s where he was, but we suspect that that’s the case. We’re not too worried about him because although the flooding has caused seven deaths in Belize, none of them were from accidents on the washed out roads and bridges, so we’re hoping that he’s holed up someplace safe and dry and just waiting for the roads to be fixed so he can get home – although all bets are off as to when the roads will be fixed. Repair crews attempted to fix one of the washouts on the Hummingbird Highway this morning, and they weren’t even done when the water resurged (their word, not mine!) and washed away the repair leaving another gap in the road. Tom will try to pay him again on Friday when he’s trying again to get Tinkerbell’s ignition fixed, since the problem was diagnosed but not fixed yesterday, although the brakes were finally fixed. As the mechanic was underneath the truck and tinkering with the wires, he asked Tom if he knew that the cab mounting had come loose of the frame. No, Tom didn’t know. But, that’s why the ignition wires don’t work, and it’s why the driver’s door has been harder and harder to close – the truck cab is trying to get loose from the frame, and taking everything with it as it goes.

Tom spent Tuesday morning getting all the pay envelopes ready for the San Antonio crew and delivered them that afternoon. Pay for the 7 Miles crew is being delivered now, and then it’s all over – until the next reaping.

1 comment:

BZ bound said...

Wow...What a tale! A great addition to an awesome chronicle of daily life in the real BZE......Keep up the good work and our thoughts are with everyone affected recently by the weather!