Normally, in early October, the nuts are swept into windrows by the Florry after they've fallen to the ground, vacuumed up by the Weiss-McNair, taken to the dryer, cracked, sorted and resorted in plenty of time. However, this late harvest forced us to pull the 1930s Rube Goldberg-like "Mave Nut Harvester" out of the barn where we sorted 2000 pounds by hand on an area of level ground where the debris could be left as fertilizer.
Because it had rained the week before, the tractor and attendant heavy machines were not able to be used first. That necessitated tree shaking and hand raking before we could begin the process. This was done by a hardworking crew of five. When the weather cleared we proceeded to the Mave.
It takes four of us to work the Mave. This machine is about fifteen feet long with a trailer hitch at the front, and a platform at the back which rest on large wooden blocks for stability. It has an axel with four tires in the middle, and two gas motors to drive several 10 foot floppy rubber belts. One runs the fan that blows off the chaff, and one runs the mesh conveyer belts that carry the nuts. Originally it was steam powered, I've been told.
Because the vacuum is as good as its nickname, the "GETZUMALL," it collects everything under the trees and spews nuts, broken shells, dirt clods, grass, leaves, rocks, old nuts (not picked up last year), and turkey poop into a tote which holds 700 pounds. This box is delivered to the front end of the Mave where someone with a large nut shovel must slowly drop a scoop into the bin that is a 2 foot by 2 foot square, narrowing to a smaller square at the bottom. From there the nuts ascend a five foot conveyer belt that is an 18 inch wide open fretwork and looks like a series of wavy graphs. This allows the dirt and smaller stones to drop through to the ground before they reach the next step. Here the nuts pass by a fan that blows off anything lightweight through a chimney that is curved on one side so the the debris goes in one direction away from the machinery and workers.
There is a long metal tube, 10 inches in diameter, that runs the length of the Mave to the end. It spits out of the fan unit in a high-powered column of air at the backend that a person does not want to walk in front of because dirt, small stones, and anything that is too small to remain on the belt. The belt then levels out and drops its load into what we call a squirrel cage, composed of a series of long pencil thin ribs with half inch spaces in between that allow anything smaller than a nut to drop through to the ground. This cage revolves, spiraling the nuts to the final conveyer belt at 90 degrees to the first, where three of us workers wait to sort and bag the nuts. This belt is really too short for a long look at what is dropping from the squirrel cage onto it. It is only about three feet long, and two of us pick the remaining broken shells, rocks and old, small, or misshapen nuts and drop them into a tub beneath our feet. There are still curled leaves and some turkey scat that is hard enough on the outside to survive the trip, but just soft enough to stick to your fingers into as you sort. The noise causes us to wear earplugs and the exhaust from the motor usually gives us a headache, even though we are working in the open air.
I mention this because we usually pick without gloves since there is a danger of getting clothing or gloves caught in the moving belt. One harvest, our partner, Renee, caught the flap of her bib overalls in the belt grid. Since there is so much machine noise involved, no one at the front end could hear her calling for help, so everyone must know how to use the safety switch to turn off the motors in an emergency. She was saved from injury by another worker's prompt attention and action.
You would think that the repetitiveness would give a worker plenty of time to muse, but really, I must keep my eyes on the conveyer belt in order to spot what needs to be discarded. It is wonderful if a person is ambidextrous because he/she is more adroit than a person such as myself who can only work with one hand. I stand at the top of the conveyer belt and use my left hand to push back the fast-traveling nuts so that we have a few more seconds to examine them. Then, I eliminate the debris with my right hand. Sometimes, I can point to my partner to pick up something I've missed, and sometimes I miss a turkey poop on purpose, leaving the responsibility to my partner. All the while the platform on which I am standing is vibrating, and I am careful that my toes don't get caught between the edge of the machine and the block on which it is resting.
When the person shoveling is too enthusiastic, we on the back line have to speed up. It is like being Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate candy conveyer belt, and we are in fast forward mode until someone jumps off the back, goes to the front, and complains.
I know not to let my mind wander; I must not look into the squirrel cage in anticipation of what will drop onto the belt, and at the end of the day I close my eyes and see nuts and rocks and dirt clods (the size of nuts) going by inside my eyelids.
The third person stands facing the end of the last belt where the nuts drop into netted orange citrus-type bags. He/she can't really help sort because there isn't enough lead time to see what's coming, but he can spot bad items that have traveled to either edge of the belt and pick up those. His main job is to see that the sacks don't go over the top. They hold about 30 pounds of nuts, and there is a handle that flops the flow from the belt to another sack when the first one is full and is being taken off and tied. Then there are a few minutes to put a new sack in its place before it is time to fill it too.
During the first sort on the Mave, we don't weigh the full nut sacks. That is left for the second sorting, after the nuts go to the dryer, which is an easier sort as most of the rejects have been removed. During the second sort the nuts are bagged in 25 pound increments to simplify the math at selling. One harvest, I got so good at estimating the desired 25 pounds that I earned the nickname "La Oja" for my stellar efforts. Most of the sacks were "spot on" when they were weighted.
If we are lucky, we get a break every hour. We usually can't work more than a couple of hours before the machine breaks down, either it is clogged with grass and leaves or a stone or nut has stopped the conveyer. Whenever that happens, we unpaid volunteers do a little internal cheer, anticipating a brief rest until the problem is fixed. This year we had a man stop by to buy nuts when a breakdown occurred. He spotted the problem, crawled under the Mave to retrieve a very large stone that was wedged out of eyesight by the workers and holding up our progress. The least we could do was give hime a bag of nuts for free. Instead "the boss" charged him half price. We're not a charity, after all.
The sacks go the the dryer for a week, come back and are sorted again for quality. They are then ready to go to market.
We are thankful the six dry days we had, four of them sunny and cold, for the friends and agricultural workers who helped, and for the many other blessings that the farm provides. Happy Thanksgiving!