Berry pickers caught red-handed
August 28, 2008 · Updated 8:55 AM
MARYSVILLE They were caught red-handed and, not only that, they were laying down on the job, all 26 of them as they flew over the green fields on Smith Island.
These are the Ukrainian wonders that keep Biringer Farms going during the summer strawberry harvest. Scores of local teenagers make a bundle of cash and have a bundle of fun riding the two picking machines at the Smith Island farm. Most are from recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and owner Diana Biringer said her teens from the Ukraine are some of the best workers in the world.
She was riding a slow-moving ship and talking to 15-year-old Ruslan Tsymbalyuk of Everett last week. Tsymbalyuk was laying on his stomach reaching down into the rows of dark green plants, picking off the dark red berries and putting them a white bucket, along with 25 other workers. Today he was laying low, but just two days before when someone called in sick he was supervising the entire operation. Biringer laughed that she didnt know exactly how the system worked on her own farm, but the 15-year-old stepped up to the plate and kept the entire machine going smoothly.
Hes my hero, Biringer said. He was running the machine.
I like to work, the handsome kid shrugged.
According to Biringer the Slavic immigrants keep her enterprise humming with their cheerful and hardy work ethic. Indeed under a bright sunny sky last week the teens were smiling and laughing as they filled their buckets, occasionally pelting each other with a
berry as the machine paused for unloading.
Diana Gubarik and Vita Popach are two students at North Middle School in Everett, and they were laying side-by-side chatting and picking. Gubarik said working on the farm was a good way to make money and friends at the same time, and that she and Popach enjoy talking away the hours. Ivan Kravets vouched for that.
My head hurts from listening to them all day long, Kravets laughed. He was laying on a padded shelf about the size of an ironing board next to Tsymbalyuk. He said it was easy work, no cramps or fatigue. Unless listening to the girls counted, he added.
For Lyuda Brysyzhnyuk the work was a good way to earn a little cash.
Its pretty good, the 15-year-old said. Its fun and I like the strawberries.
She was showing off a couple of flats of freshly-picked berries to Biringer. The teen was working the first-cut machine, where the biggest and best berries are picked for retail sale. Kravets and his peers were picking the smaller slicers that will be processed and then mixed with sugar and frozen. Both are available at the farm.
Samantha Morgan was supervising the slicer picking machine, a series of platforms mounted on a self-propelled tractor that steered itself down the rows, guided by a bullet six-inches in diameter. Mounted on a long steering arm, the bullet nosed along the bottom of a furrow and kept the machine on track while Morgan kept her 26 pickers on task. Theres no one steering or anything, just Morgan walking up and down the planks, collecting buckets of berries and spreading them out on clean trays.
A substitute middle school teacher, Morgan said she was well-prepared to deal with her charges, with one exceptions.
In class I have to tell them not to use their iPods, here I have to resist the urge, Morgan laughed.
As a worker filled up his or her bucket, Morgan would tap their ID card that hangs from the machines awning. Each workers production is tracked with the wand and they are individually credited with and paid for their production. On the slicer machine they get credit for each bucket, and its by the flat on the other machine.
Biringer recalled a former machine where pickers just put their berries on a conveyor, where they were all mixed together. Then the proceeds were divided by the number of workers picking. It was called the communist machine and like the former Soviet Union, it didnt work very well either.
This is the fairest way because they are picking their own flats, Biringer explained.
Nikolay Usachev supervises the crew that picks the first-rate retail berries and he said the crew would pick any where from 1,000 to 1,500 flats per shift. A resident of the U. S. since 2000, Usachev relied on a pair of twin brothers Pavel and Vitaliy Primachik to supervise the workers.
Pavel said it was a lot of responsibility and that he had to find a balance between being nice, being friends and getting his peers to be productive.
For Morgan its a pleasure to hear the many different accents, languages and dialects, and aside from the occasional water fight the kids were the best.
Its a different environment; you get to work with all different nationalities, the substitute teacher said.
Morgan and Biringer both talked of the magnificent homemade borscht and pastries the workers brought to the farm, readily sharing their creations on a daily basis.
You should see these guys at lunch time, Morgan said, rolling her eyes.