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Circus antics keep thin grip on sanity

16 July 2015
Circus antics keep thin grip on sanity

Stu’s Fruit with Stuart Weston.

By the time you read this, packhouse staff will likely be curled up in a foetal position in a safe, warm place. Some of us may even be sucking our thumbsa. Slowly, as the scarlet veins in our eyes fade to pink, the adrenaline will seep from our systems and we’ll work through the post-season depression that comes with detoxing from a 12-week dance party. 

Right now, though, the manic dance party is in full swing. 

In trying to explain this business to non-kiwifruit people, I liken it to the circus coming to town once a year. For a brief period, we stretch man and machinery to the limits of endurance and those who survive get to do it all again next year. 

As the leader of many hundreds of Apata staff, I know the single most important skill required is understanding and inspiring our people, and caring for them under these extraordinary circumstances. The human animal is the most glorious, fascinating and infuriating creature I’ve ever encountered. The purity and beauty of a packhouse is that all facades disappear and we see people in their raw state. I can tell who would be an angry drunk, who would be a happy drunk, even who would be a horny drunk based on how they’re behaving at different stages of the fatigue cycle. 

I have my personal experience to draw on, too. 

In Dr Stu’s future bestseller: “Seven Habits of Highly Stressed People” we’ll find the following excerpt covering fatigue: 

Stage 1 – Physical depletion. A bit slower to kick-start in the morning, maybe a stifled yawn part way through the day. Solution? Red Bull.

Stage 2 – Irritability. Some things that ordinarily wouldn’t bug me are seriously pissing me off. Today, I could throttle the grower services rep unable to count, let’s say bins, for example. Solution? Take a moment and have a good old rant at an inanimate object. (Helpful hint: ensure nobody can see you – I’ve had a few awkward moments walking into a room full of people who are pretending very hard they didn’t hear me hurling abuse at the wall.) 

Stage 3 – Euphoria. Feel warm and fuzzy inside as some of the annoying crap starts to look funny. A kind of resignation sets in that this may be as good as it gets – you know things aren’t right but it’s hilarious. In SCUBA diving, we talk about the risk of nitrogen narcosis if you dive too deep, with certain gases under high pressure causing a drunken state. Running a packhouse at this stage of the circus is exactly the same. Unfortunately, this phase is fleeting and usually finishes when a harvest contractor or grower phones to share how well they think you’re doing with harvest coordination. Solution? Don breathing apparatus, dive to 50m and wait for the euphoria to kick in again (no cell phone coverage 50m down).

Stage 4 – Dazed. While basic, normal bodily functions continue, higher level capacity for problem solving gradually disappears. Conversations are punctuated by inappropriately long silences and frequent requests of “sorry, can you repeat that”? There’s a lot of staring into space happening. Solution? Hastily-sourced potentially illegal chemical concoctions (HSPICCs). This is worth considering only after HR department has completed random drug tests in packhouse. 

Stage 5 – Dazed and confused. I’ll be striding purposefully somewhere when it occurs to me that I have no bloody idea where I’m going. Or what day it is. Solution? HSPICCs washed down with Red Bull. 

Stage 6 – Chernobyl. Done well, a Chernobyl incident can live on in the folklore of the business for years to come. I like to have something warm to drink beforehand so my vocal chords are primed for full volume. For maximum theatrical effect, it helps to have items that aren’t bolted down within reach, for flinging with reckless abandon. Solution? Taser gun for potential victim or HR manager in attendance as “support person” writing notes which could later be used in evidence against you in a court of law. 

Stage 7 – Total system failure. You know you’ve reached this stage when you’re lying down and can’t summon enough energy to raise your hand to check the time. You want to cry out but the effort of producing sound is too much. At this point, it seems there is no solution beyond continuing to lie there. You will either recover, or start to decompose. This is the moment you realise that, regardless of whether you’re standing in the middle of it all trying to direct traffic, the world will keep turning, the sun will rise again tomorrow and, actually, all those fabulous staff don’t need you hanging around around pestering them all the time. Actual solution? Wake up, wise up, smell the coffee, get a grip. Time to write another poignant harvest newsletter for growers… 

It is a true test of character to survive a season in the post harvest sector. 

Over and over I see tough looking guys full of brag and bluster completely fall to pieces under the intense load, whilst other less assuming characters seem to have the fortitude to lean into the load and steam on through. 

Despite my youthful vigour, I am very much an “old school” packhouse operator and derive some bizarre satisfaction in chalking up seasons with death-defying hours. 

However, I’ve slowly begun to realise that’s not heroic, it’s stupid, and if we really are serious about being great at what we do, and good buggers to deal with, we’ll be needing to think how we do this stuff smarter and more sustainably. So let’s see if we can bring back the fatigue levels to stage three and keep them there, people. 

Food for thought? Or perhaps it’s just stage seven talking. 

• Editor’s note: Stuart has never used HSPICCs because the world is dangerous enough with a drug-free Stuart inhabiting it. He also doesn’t drink alcohol, though a staff poll predicted to a 97 percent degree of accuracy, he would be a happy drunk. 





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