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Pick-your-own Apples a "Wasteful Scam?"

apple-pickingI’m a sucker for tradition. So I was excited last week to head out for our third annual Halloween Hayride to the Witches House at our local pick-your-own spot. After less than two hours, we left $100 lighter and a whole lot of pumpkins and apples heavier. When did wholesomeness get so expensive?

I’m not the only one wondering this. Daniel Gross writes in this 2006 Slate column, reprinted last week, “Apple picking is a cherished rite of fall, a wholesome and fun family outing… I look forward to it every year. It’s also a wasteful scam.”

Let’s break down my recent visit: The hayride, a 20-minute jaunt into the woods to the “witch’s house”–a painted wood cut-out–featured two friendly witches who told bad jokes and an even worse moralizing story. Each rider got a pumpkin-shaped sugar cookie and after the ride a marshmallow to roast and a Dixie-cup of cold cider. The cost? $8 per person, even for 16-month-old Molly (only kids under 1 ride for free).

After the gouging ride, we ventured into Pumpkinland, which more than lived up to its name: Pumpkins of all shapes and sizes filled every imaginable space, artfully arranged in overflowing piles just begging for a family snapshot with a tiny toddler perched precariously on top. The kids were ecstatic, running from bin to bin, all wanting to pick the perfect pumpkin. The cost? 69 cents per pound. That’s more than $40 for three large pumpkins.

This was in the evening, so we couldn’t pick our own apples, though we have in the past. Instead, we purchased some apples in the farm store, most of which, upon closer inspection, were not grown at the orchard (they were labeled, “locally grown”). The apples were all $1.69 per pound, which is about what they cost at Whole Foods, though of course I don’t buy them there because they’re too friggin’ expensive. We picked up a couple of baskets of apples, allowed the children to each pick out a tiny pumpkin ($1 each), and loaded up the car.

Today, I threw out a dozen leftover rotting apples.

Of course, the kids had a wonderful time, and I know these experiences are imprinting into cherished memories they will hold dear forevermore. I love going to the orchard to pick my own fruit year round, but each time I take out my wallet to pay for my bushel of apples/strawberries/peaches I become increasingly wary of paying a premium for the privilege of doing the farmer’s work for him.

Not just doing the farmer’s work for him; fighting with hundreds of other suburban families trying to do the same thing. Gross writes, “…gaining access to the choice apple trees and a quick checkout lane requires the same level of competitiveness, foresight, and sharp elbows as winning admission to top nursery schools…”

And the waste, as Gross notes, is staggering. For every apple we pick and carefully place in our basket, five more are tossed aside as too green/too soft/just wrong. Kids and adults alike take sample bites out of apples (Is it sweet? Crispy? Juicy?) only to toss them to the ground. And sometimes, simply the force of picking one perfect apple sends a cascade of not-quite-ready apples to the ground, to rot along with the rest of the discarded masses. Orchards like this one must lose half their crop to waste.

But this practice works: “Encourage yuppies and their progeny to come pick your fruit,” Gross writes. “They’ll pay handsomely for the privilege, buy more than they’d ordinarily consume, and then shell out for all sorts of other value-added products.”

Who am I to argue with tradition? After all, you can’t put a price on wholesomeness.

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