EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — Jane McElroy focuses on the apples on the conveyor like a bird of prey.
She looks for the obvious — a puncture here, a split there, a bad bruise. And the not so obvious like a light bruise, slight sunburn discoloration and small brownish-black spots indicating bitter pit.
She reacts in split seconds — she has to, because the conveyor moving the apples is moving at a good clip. She snatches defect apples and sends them down chutes to other conveyors. They’re trucked away for juicing, sauce and baked-ingredient processing elsewhere.
“You know what bad is and you reach for it. It’s so automatic you aren’t even thinking. Your hands move and grab. Sometimes your eyes spin like pinwheels after awhile,” says McElroy, after nearly four decades of working on Wenatchee tree fruit packing lines.
It must be some sort of record. Most people stay on packing lines only so long before moving on to other jobs. Twenty years is rare. McElroy’s 37 years is more or less unheard of. She’s aiming for a few more years to be eligible for Social Security. She’s worked for McDougall & Sons for 29 years and before that was at Stemilt Growers for eight years.
Hand defect sorting once took a lot of people, but high-tech optical sizer-sorters, which have improved over the years, now catch 90 percent or more of defects.
At McDougall’s North Baker Flats packing plant north of East Wenatchee, McElroy is one of nine people sorting before apples pass through one of two Dutch-made Greefa sizer-sorters that take 16 images of each apple in a second and instantaneously sort for size, color and external and internal defects.
Now 61, McElroy moved to Wenatchee from Minnesota in 1979 when she was 20. Someone told her there was good money in sorting and packing cherries. She hired on at Stemilt, one of the state’s largest cherry packers, in the 1981 cherry season.
“It was something like $5 an hour, which back then was pretty good and there was only one shift. No night crew. You went in at 5 or 6 a.m. and didn’t get off until 7 or 11 p.m., whenever the last truck came in. So you racked up the hours,” she said.
Next came pears and apples and McElroy learned to toss fruit with one hand from a Cutler flat round spinning tub and catch with the other hand to place the fruit on a tray in the box.
That type of hand packing has been increasingly replaced by automated tray fillers.
Fast toss-and-catch packers could pack 40-pound boxes in 30 to 40 seconds, including throwing a foam or paper tissue on top of each filled tray.
“I felt sorry for the guys supplying the tissues. If you missed your catch — and it did happen, you would get tired, — fruit would go flying,” McElroy said. “You’d yell, ‘Fore!’”
Hand packers were paid piece rate — 16 to 28 cents a box years ago and 50 cents a box of egg-carton-like cell packs — incentive to pack fast, reaching 300 boxes per day.
“You would be at your best. It was a good competition. OK, it wasn’t always yourself. You’d look at one of the older packers and say you could beat her,” McElroy said. “It was fun. Oh my gosh!”
She never thought too much about doing anything else.
“Being a new kid in a job in your 40s isn’t easy as when you’re younger,” she said, “and then you get to a point when you only have a few more years go to and you just let it play out.”