At the age of 86, retired sheet-metal worker Bob Lindsay said he doesn’t square dance much anymore, but it’s easy to see he has mastered other moves that involve twisting, turning, bending and sometimes, stretching.
For the last three years, the spry Mesa resident has worked as a volunteer picking citrus with his 79-year-old buddy, Bud Rolley, from The Groves neighborhood in Gilbert off of Baseline Road. The bounty of grapefruit and oranges resembles a heaven on Earth for citrus lovers but also benefits those in need throughout the Valley as well as those in eight other states where many types of citrus don’t grow.
“It’s good exercise,” said Lindsay, a winter resident from Arlington Heights, Ill., who served as a Seabee in the U.S. Navy during World War II, passing ammunition and loading 55-gallon drums of gasoline on cargo ships for troops in the South Pacific. “About the only exercise I get anymore is walking the dog.”
When Lindsay retired as metalworker in 1987, he said his job of making stainless steel accessories for restaurants and the food industry was replaced by a computer — but he and dozens of others now fill a need for something a computer cannot do in citrus groves around the Valley. The Groves is just one of countless Valley neighborhoods crowded with more fruit than a family can eat. So the United Food Bank in Mesa works with 250 food banks and agencies throughout five counties in Arizona to round up volunteers who pick citrus from early January through mid-March. When there is an abundance of citrus, it gets trucked to states such as Washington, California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Texas and Utah — often in exchange for fruit that Arizona does not have in abundance, such as apples.
About 2,100 volunteers for the food bank pick about 460 tons of citrus in a season — nearly 1 million pounds, according to Donna Rodgers, director of development for the East Valley United Food Bank. Rogers said requests to glean citrus outnumber volunteers, and they’re always looking for more help.
A group from Gold Canyon United Methodist Church picks about 48 tons per season from The Groves, coordinator Terry Parsons said. Gleaning the citrus ensures crops are healthy the following year and helps keep the roof rats away in neighborhoods where they can be a problem.
On Friday, Lindsay was the senior member among a group of 30 volunteers from the church who swarmed trees in The Groves. Last week, there were a record 40 pickers in the Groves; the first week, there were 21.
Camaraderie develops for the group, mostly consisting of retirees and winter residents looking for something worthwhile to do while socializing — they joke, laugh and work while helping others.
Of the pickers from the Gold Canyon church, Parsons said, “I liken it to a swarm of locusts.”
Parsons, a retired physical education instructor from Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio who now lives in Gold Canyon, began volunteering as a picker 16 years ago for the West Side Food Bank (now part of St. Mary’s Food Bank). He later began coordinating the group a few years ago when the minister announced a need for citrus pickers in The Groves.
“It’s something fun to do outdoors, it makes a significant contribution and it feeds people,” he said. “I like to pay it forward, and by doing this, we are.”
The tools of the picking trade include plastic buckets that can hold about 25 pounds of citrus and 6- to 10-foot-long pickers made of wood with two metal prongs on the end. Many of the pickers were made by blacksmith and retired pipefitter Monte Bygde of Wisconsin, who helped galvanize the group’s method of picking while improving efficiency.
When buckets are full of citrus, the pickers take their pales to a large pallet and gently pour them in a large cardboard box. When the box is full, the food bank provides a staging area where they load the pallets onto trucks for transport to a nearby warehouse.
“It’s like a Jane Fonda workout without the ab machine,” said Audrey Iverson of Apache Junction, who helped organize nonprofit organizations in her home state of Minnesota. “I couldn’t do anything like this during this time of year back home in northern Minnesota. I don’t cross-country ski or snowmobile anymore. I don’t see the tops of my flowers popping out of the snow until May.”
A day of picking begins at 9 a.m. and is done about noon, Parsons said.
“How ’bout some coffee?,” one of the pickers yells out. “We’ve got some water,” another says.
“Are we done, yet?” asks Janice Hendrick, who hails from the fishing village of Gig Harbor, Wash. “I wouldn’t compare this to fishing — picking citrus is much more plentiful than fishing. This is the best exercise. When I go home, I’m tired, and I deserve to be.”
“Just take a Tylenol PM, and don’t overdo it,” another picker told her. We need you back next week.”
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