My first acquaintance with quality control came at the age of six in a potato field, when harvesting spuds still consisted of hand picking into sacks. There must have been forty of us, migrant workers and housewives and children let out of school for a couple weeks, on our knees or bent at the waist grabbing one potato at a time, the first step of many from field to table. The boss came out to the field one day, all a-frenzied, eager to steer us from our method of gathering ALL the potatoes toward sorting them, taking only “number ones” and leaving the rest. I didn’t really understand for many years that the market paid premium prices for “bakers”(eight-ounce, smooth potatoes, without knobs or blemishes) while small, large or misshapen spuds actually worked against the farmer—the buyers called these “unusables”, though they were used for processing (they just weren’t paid for). So the farmer wanted to increase his profit by lowering his labor bill, since he was paying us by the sack to harvest potatoes he not only wouldn’t be paid for but which cost him extra for transport and storage.
Just a couple years later, my sleuthlike uncle traced a criminal’s distinct footprint through a similar spud field to discover which picker was leaving small potatoes in the field—potatoes he saved for seed in the coming year. The culprit, of course, was me. I’d been leaving those tiny potatoes, some smaller than a big toe, thinking they were unmarketable, but my uncle, unlike my previous employer, used them for next year’s crop.
Just like potatoes, each cut flower species has a range when it needs to be harvested, and usually it depends on to whom it’s being marketed. Wholesalers like most flowers tight so they hold longer, giving the seller a wider window to market them in, florists want them somewhat open so they appear lush but will last a few days, while event designers want them as close to blown as possible, since the flowers only need to last through the wedding or party.
There are other considerations, too. Some species, like lilies, open even when cut as a tight bud. Monarda, tulips, scabiosa—all give the harvester lots of leeway for marketing, as they continue to color and bloom after being cut, even in the low temperatures of a cooler. But others, like zinnias and asclepias, stop evolving the moment they’re harvested—no pushing the envelope, there.
Then there are spiky flowers, most of which bloom from the bottom up, with lower florets deteriorating as upper ones open, giving pollinators a longer window of opportunity but forcing a harvester to decide when to cut. If bees get to delphiniums, for instance, you need to cut much earlier than if they don’t, making for quite different product to deliver to a client. Since bees generally don’t visit inside greenhouses, snapdragons harvested there can usually be allowed to open considerably farther than those outside, where bees trigger florets into seed producing mode almost immediately. Then there are those spikes that bloom from the top down, like peachleaf bellflower, and require a reverse procedure, a decision on how many upper florets to allow open before harvesting.
The grower possesses an advantage when cutting that any employee lacks. He knows what stage he wants a particular flower to be harvested at and can alter his harvest according to the shifts of his market. Likely, he doesn’t overload his help with information—Emily wants them ready to use, Sarah Jo needs them to hold until Saturday—so he may confuse cutters when he shifts harvesting standards. This freaks some employees out, since there are a lot of people unable to be flexible, whether they’ve been taught to be rigidly black-and-white thinkers or worry too much about pleasing the boss and can’t stand the thought of being wrong. Other employees will quickly forget the new standard, and almost all will slow down at least a microsecond, having first to remember what to forget, then remember what to remember, before cutting.
The range of cuttability being so shifty, today’s standard may not be tomorrow’s, so those who can’t erase one set of instructions to adopt a new one instead suddenly have two that overlap and even contradict each other. The result: frustration, bordering on sheer craziness. It’s much like having your thermostat set in such a manner that the heat comes on when it gets too cold, but when the heat comes on the air conditioning kicks in.
That confusing place in consciousness, where what is isn’t and what isn’t is, has been the subject of philosophical thought for a couple thousand years, and can be illustrated in the statement made by the Greek that “all Greeks are liars,” which means the speaker is lying and telling the truth at the same time—it makes no sense at all, but most of us are confronted with like situations from time to time and some of us even get brought up in environments where such paradoxical communication happens habitually.
Interested in this mental landscape of contradiction, social science researchers in the mid-twentieth century devised an experiment to illuminate the results of being given conflicting messages. Since ethics committees prevented using humans as subjects, the researchers taught dogs to distinguish the difference between a circle and an oval, rewarding them for right decisions. Once that part of the experiment was taken care of, they slowly made the oval more circular in subsequent tests, and the circle more oval. As they did, the dogs started exhibiting increasingly odd behaviors, whimpering, self-biting, spinning in circles, presumably because they knew they were supposed to know the difference but could not. Such an experiment wouldn’t be allowed even on animals these days, I suspect, but it is instructive to know that choosing can be maddening if the choice is irrational, even impossible.
So, if you’re the boss, don’t present your harvesters with impossible decisions. It’s best to cut a number of stems when showing new employees new species, one showing the place in the bloom cycle where cutting is too tight and one showing where it’s too blown, one displaying the maximally tight stage and one the most open you will tolerate. And if your standard shifts from day to day, make it clear why, explain to them to erase (for the moment only) what you told them before. If they can’t follow directions spelled out so clearly, if they start spinning and biting themselves, pat them gently and have them go weed, they may simply never be harvesters.