Cherry Drying: Why I Won’t Work with Middlemen

It just doesn’t make sense for me or the pilots I work with.

I’m in the process of hiring pilots to work with me during cherry drying season here in Washington State. Finding and hiring good, qualified, responsible pilots is a real chore every year made even more difficult by the preponderance of middlemen — guys who want to act as brokers between pilots and people trying to hire them.

I Am Not a Middleman

Parked in an Orchard
My helicopter, parked in a cherry orchard in 2009. I’ve been doing this work for years.

Let me set things straight from the start: I have cherry drying contracts with orchard owners. I work directly with them or their orchard managers to learn the orchards and fly them. I fly as a pilot over the orchards I’m contracted to cover.

During the busiest time of the season — usually mid June to mid July — I have overlapping contracts that make it impossible for me to cover all the acreage alone if rain is widespread. So I hire other pilots with helicopters to work with me, as part of my team, to get the job done. We work together — all of us know all of the orchards in our area. I don’t assign specific orchards to specific pilots. When it rains, I dispatch pilots, including myself, to service the orchards we get calls for.

My goal is to get a helicopter over an orchard as quickly as possible, so I dispatch based on pilot location and availability. All of my pilots are based within ten minutes flight time of all of the orchards in their area so they can get to orchards quickly and get from one orchard to the next quickly. If a pilot has flown over a specific orchard once, I’m more likely to assign that orchard to him again — but that’s mostly because the more often you work an orchard, the better you know it and the quicker you can service it.

Because I hire and pay pilots, I’ve been accused of being a middleman or broker. But although I am in the middle of the transaction, the pilots I hire are working for and with me. I give them their orders, I pay them. And what the pilots seem to like most about the arrangement is that I pay them in advance for standby and I don’t wait until my clients pay me to pay pilots what I owe them. In other words, they are my contract labor and I pay them based on my contract with them — not my contract with someone else.

There are at least two other helicopter operators in my area who do pretty much what I do: contract with growers to provide coverage, then hire pilots to help them provide that coverage. I worked for an earlier incarnation of one of them. What they do is a bit different from what I do, but I think it’s because of the sheer number of orchards they have and area they cover: Instead of getting all pilots in an area familiar with all orchards and dispatching based on location and availability, they assign specific orchards to specific pilots. As a result, one guy could be flying all day while another guy sits around waiting for a call. My belief is that if good customer service is your primary objective — and it certainly is mine — this is not the best way to utilize your assets (the pilots). Get all the pilots in an area to work as a team and get the acreage covered as quickly as possible.

On Working Directly for Growers

The best situation is to work directly for a grower, but not all pilots want to do that. There are a few reasons for this.

First of all, most orchards aren’t big enough to pay enough standby money to make it worthwhile for a pilot. Aggregation is the key. Get multiple orchards and add up that standby money. If you do it right, you should bring in enough money to make it worthwhile without contracting more acreage than you can handle. This is how I started.

It isn’t easy to aggregate when the contracts are in widespread locations or have overlapping dates. It’s taken me years to fine-tune my operation and, after seven years, it still isn’t perfect. (I don’t think it ever will be.) There are days when I have — and am paying for — more pilots than I need and actually taking a loss on the standby money I have to pay them. But when I average everything out, I do okay.

And although my clients usually pay within a reasonable time, the more clients I have, the more accounting there is to deal with. Invoicing, following up, collecting money, making deposits, paying pilots, filing tax-related documents, paying taxes. If I didn’t have an accounting degree, I’d probably have to hire (and pay) someone to do this, too.

And when you consider how short the season is — one to three months, depending on the contracts you can get and the area you can cover — it’s difficult for an operator outside the area, doing other work for the rest of the year, to build a solid client base.

The pilots who work for me are glad that I do all the setup and pay them what they’re owed, per the contract, on time. The ones who come back every year know a good deal when they have one.

Enter the Brokers

Unfortunately, there are a number of helicopter operators — either current or past — who have decided that there is money to be made by acting as a middleman between the people looking for pilots — like me — and the actual pilots.

I blogged about one of them back in 2013. He contacted me, claiming he had five helicopters with experienced pilots — he said 1000+ hours PIC time — available for cherry drying contracts. The real situation — which I pieced together from our subsequent communication and discussion with another pilot — was that he had zero helicopters and zero pilots; as soon as I told him what I wanted, he’d find pilots to fill the position. Then I’d pay him and he’d pay the pilots a piece of what I paid him. The red flag went up when he told me he wanted more money than we originally agreed upon. The reason: he couldn’t find a pilot willing to take what he was willing to pay after taking his cut from what I paid him. I figure his cut was probably $25 to $50 a day on a four-week contract and maybe $100 or more per hour on flight time.

What does he do for his cut? The way I see it, two things:

  • Work as a sort of matchmaker to match a pilot with someone who needs a pilot.
  • Sit on all the money he receives from the person doing the hiring as long as he can before paying the person doing the work.

Why would a pilot take a cut in pay to work with someone like this?

And that’s just part of the problem. Another part is the qualifications of pilots the middleman finds. You see, he doesn’t really care how qualified or responsible the pilots he brokers out are. They’re not flying his helicopters. They’re not servicing his clients. If they screw up, it’s not going to cost him anything. So he’ll send any pilot and helicopter that seems to satisfy the person hiring.

And then there’s the issue of communication — possibly giving the pilot the wrong information about the job. Suggesting that there might be more flight time than what’s really possible. Or that the contract could be extended. Or that it’s okay to do training while on actual cherry drying missions.

All this results in a mismatch of expectations — and that’s never a good thing.

Isn’t that enough reason for me to avoid working with middlemen?

This Year

This year, I’m hiring four pilots for about four weeks each. I’ve filled three of the slots. The fourth slot is being difficult, with two pilots saying yes and then backing out because they were unable or unwilling to fulfill contract requirements. I’m negotiating with three pilots to fill that slot, but haven’t come to an agreement with any of them yet.

The reason it’s difficult? I’m picky. I want someone experienced and responsible, someone I know will show up over an orchard promptly and do the work as my clients expect it to be done. I want someone who takes the work seriously and understands that it requires good flying skills in any conditions and is not an opportunity to give a friend rides or do training. Safety and service are my two biggest priorities. Unfortunately, its not easy to find someone willing to come to Washington for a month who understands and respects that.

But I know things will come together in time. They always do. And I’m looking forward to working with my team to give my clients the best service possible.

No middleman required.

Bees and Mites

A TED talk with great bee footage and some clarification.

My friend Megg tagged me in a Facebook post that included a link to a TED talk titled “A Thrilling Look at the First 21 Days of a Bee’s Life.” If you haven’t seen this yet, you should watch it. It includes the most amazing footage of a bee hatching from an egg and developing from a larvae to an adult bee.

Watch it now. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that amazing?

But I do need to set the record straight. During the presentation, the speaker, Anand Varma, says that beekeepers use chemicals to treat for mites. Although we can use chemicals, not all of us do. There are other non-chemical treatment methods. I use a combination of drone frames and screened bottom boards.

  • I’ve blogged about mites and drone frames:
    Bees: Installing Drone Frames
    Bees: the Drone Frames Really Do Work
    Bees: More about Mites

    Drone frames encourage the queen to lay more drone eggs, which the mites prefer because they have a longer gestation period. I then kill the developing drone larvae and the mites with them by freezing them (or feeding them to my chickens). I can reuse the drone frames.

  • Screen bottom boards replace the solid bottom of a hive with a screen that bees can walk on but mites fall through. Once they fall through, they can’t climb back into the hive. Sticky boards can also be used beneath screens to catch the mites and count them to estimate infestation levels.

A third technique I’ll try this year is using powdered sugar. You dust the bees with sugar and they clean each other off. As they clean off, the mites fall off and, if there’s a screened bottom board, they fall thought and exit the hive.

I believe that consistent and proper use of all three methods can reduce mite infestations without chemicals.

So while genetically engineered bees might be one solution that could be better, beekeepers have other cheaper and easier options available to us.

The Cricket Wars

Because crickets belong outdoors.

It started the other night at 1:50 AM. The sound of a cricket so loud that it woke me out of a sound sleep.

Like most people, I like the sound of crickets. To me, it’s a country sound, a sound of the natural world. It reminds me of childhood and camping and the great outdoors. It reminds me of star gazing and warm summer nights and forests.

A symphony of hundreds of crickets is a wonderful blanket of white noise to lull a person to sleep.

But not when a cricket is making its noise from the inside of your bedroom closet.

It was loud. Very loud. And because my home has very high ceilings, the sound seemed to echo around the place. Indeed, when I finally got out of bed to try to put a stop to it, it took me a while to zero in on the bug’s location. But I found it in the corner of the closet, hidden under some temporary shelves I’d put in there to stow my clothes until my official move.

This was not a small cricket like the ones you might buy in a pet shop to feed your caged reptile. Its body was at least an inch long.

A shoe made short work of it. I picked up its carcass with a tissue and flushed it.

And then I went back to bed.

I never did get back to sleep. Another cricket started up soon afterwards. This one wasn’t in the closet. I had no idea where it was but I knew it was indoors. Somewhere. Possibly in the living room.

I got out of bed to start by day. At 3:15 AM.

That night, on Facebook, I mentioned my cricket situation:

Found and killed the cricket in my bedroom, but the one in the living room is still at large. For now.

One of my friends commented:

Oh no! I’m sad to hear that, I love me my crickets! All they do is make music for you!

My response:

I suspect you haven’t had them in your bedroom with you. At night. When you want to sleep.

My friend Alix, who is in a doctoral program for entomology, said she could use one for her collection. She’s required to collect, identify, and mount several hundred insects for her degree. I’ve been collecting interesting bugs on and off for her for the past two years. I even bought special zipper snack bags to store them in.

So the next morning, when the cricket somewhere near my hallway started up again before 4 AM, I grabbed a snack bag and went hunting. The trick, I realized, is to be very quiet. If they hear you nearby, they shut up. It took about 10 minutes, but I finally zeroed in on my second victim. It was in my future linen closet — currently shelfless — against one wall. I put the baggie down in front of it and coaxed it in. Then I zipped it shut, took a photo, put it in the freezer, and showed it off on the Facebook thread.

Cricket Post

Alix later identified it as a male Gryllidae. (She is seriously into bugs.)

Later that morning, I heard a third one. I found it in my bedroom closet again. The ShopVac I had sitting in the hallway made short work of it.

That night, it was quiet inside. In fact, it was quiet for the next few nights.

Until 3:30 AM on Monday morning.

I found it in my closet, conveniently close to my household vacuum and closet power outlet. I plugged in the vacuum, positioned the hose nozzle, and turned it on. Whoosh!

After a quick tweet, I went back to sleep.

Since then, I haven’t been bothered by indoor crickets at night.

I did find one by my bedroom door to the deck yesterday afternoon when I went outside with a glass of wine to watch a rainstorm and listen to the rain on my roof. I scooted it outside with my toe.

And I’m pretty sure there’s one stuck inside the wall or possibly between the wall and door jamb downstairs in my entrance vestibule. I can’t find it and it doesn’t make noise at night. As I type this, it’s silent and I’m beginning to think it either found its way outside or has died.

Is the Cricket War over? I doubt it. I am more careful about leaving the doors open downstairs, though. I know I have crickets in my garage and I don’t really mind. But since I suspect they might have come in through one of my two vestibule doors to get upstairs, I now keep those doors closed. And the front door.

But I know who the winner of this war will be — and it isn’t the crickets.

Why I Buy So Much on Amazon

It’s all about quick and easy shopping.

I buy a lot of the things I need for my home and garden on Amazon.com. It’s gotten to the point that the UPS truck is at my place several times a week to drop off packages.

For a while, I felt kind of guilty about that. After all, the Wenatchee area where I live, has plenty of shopping opportunities. I should be supporting the economy by shopping locally.

Trouble is, the things I need aren’t always easy to find. Or they might take several stops to track down. Or — worse yet — I may simply forget to look for something I need while I’m out and remember a day or two later when I actually need it.

Hose Fitting
I went nuts looking for this $3.25 item in stores around town. Found it in five minutes on Amazon.

Here’s an example. I needed an irrigation fitting that would enable me to connect my automatic chicken waterer to my garden irrigation system. The idea is that when the timer starts up the irrigation system twice a day (for 10 minutes each time), it would pressurize the waterer’s water feed and top off the chicken’s water trough, which is shared by my barn cats. The irrigation hose already runs right past the waterer. Why run another hose across the garden entrance? One fitting and 10 minutes of effort and I don’t have to worry about water for my chickens or cats for the rest of the summer.

One fitting. You think I’d be able to track it down on one of my many visits to Home Depot or Lowes, right?

Wrong. Try as I might, I couldn’t find what I needed. In any of the four stores I tried.

Then I sat down at my computer and, in less than five minutes had found and ordered exactly what I needed. It would be at my doorstep in two days without any more driving or searching or frustration.

Do you know how many stores I visited, looking for a microwave that would fit on my kitchen’s microwave shelf without looking like it belonged in a dorm room? Home Depot, Lowes, Sears, Save-Mart (the local appliance store), and even Walmart. Basically, every store that sold microwaves. But again, a few minutes on Amazon and I’d narrowed down the search to the ones that fit and matched my other appliances. Then it was just a matter of picking the one I like best. A few days later, it was on my doorstep.

I bought the wrong vacuum cleaner bags for my old ShopVac three times (and returned them three times) before I did an Amazon search, found what I needed, and ordered them. I didn’t even bother trying to find the vacuum cleaner bags for my household vacuum; I just ordered them on Amazon.

I needed ghee — a clarified butter used in Indian cooking. Local supermarkets didn’t have it. Amazon did.

New battery for my Roomba? Where could I possibly find that locally? Found it on Amazon in minutes.

Want to help support this site?

Use this link when you shop at Amazon.com. A tiny percentage of your purchase will be sent to me as a referral fee. It won’t cost you anything extra and you’ll still get the great product selection and service you expect from Amazon.

And I think this is the reason online shopping poses such a threat to brick and mortar stores. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s affordable, and it often comes with free shipping — including return shipping if you decide you don’t like it.

It’s Friday and the UPS guy has been at my home four times (so far) this week. I’m expecting him today with that irrigation fitting. Yesterday, I apologized to him for so many trips down the two miles of gravel road to get to my home. He said he didn’t mind. When I jokingly suggested that it was people like me keeping him employed, he laughed along with me and agreed.

And I’m just happy to be able to save time shopping so I can get more important things done.

“Street Style” Breakfast Taco

Quick and easy hot breakfast for one (or two).

I go through phases with my breakfast choices. Although I don’t mind yogurt with granola or fruit or even cold cereal with milk and fruit, I do enjoy a hot breakfast. The trick is coming up with something that’s relatively healthy and quick and easy to make.

Preferably something that uses eggs. My chickens make five per day, on average, and they accumulate quickly.

That’s how I came up with the idea for a breakfast taco. I’m talking about a so-called “street style” taco that uses a soft corn tortilla — not crunchy “gringo Mexican” taco shells — with the ingredient tucked inside. Fold it, pick it up, and enjoy.

Here’s my recipe for one.

Ingredients

  • Breakfast Taco IngredientsSmall amount of oil or cooking spray. I usually use olive oil spray to keep the fat down a bit.
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion or sliced scallions. About once a week I chop up an onion and store it in an airtight container in my fridge. This keeps chopped onion close at hand. Some folks use frozen chopped onion and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Sliced scallions work, too, and have the benefit of cooking faster. The taste is milder, though.
  • 1 large egg.
  • 2 tablespoons shredded cheese. I use a Mexican blend, but you can use any kind you like.
  • 1 taco-size corn tortilla. Get the real thing if you can, in the Mexican food area of your supermarket or, better yet, in an Hispanic food market. I buy them 10 in a bag and keep them in the fridge or freezer. (Just noticed that these are “hand made style” — whatever the hell that means. That’s what happens when you shop without your glasses.) I’m pretty sure my tortilla press is around here somewhere; I might actually make them from scratch one of these days.

If you’re one of those people who likes salsa on your tacos, get some of that, too. I’m not a fan of salsa on anything other than chips so I don’t use it.

Instructions

  1. In a small skillet over medium heat, heat the oil or cooking spray.
  2. Add the onions or scallions and cook until softened and just starting to brown at the edges.
  3. Cooking EggGather the onions or scallions into the middle of the pan and drop an egg on them. You might want to use this opportunity to break the yolk so it cooks. I don’t scramble my eggs before cooking, but you could if you want to. Just make sure the egg stays together in the middle of the pan so it doesn’t get larger than the tortilla.
  4. When the egg has cooked on the bottom, lower the heat and flip it.
  5. Immediately sprinkle the cheese on the egg and lay the tortilla on top.
  6. Cook until the egg is done the way you like it — over easy? over medium? — and then flip it again so the tortilla is on the bottom.
  7. Cook until the tortilla has heated through and the cheese is melted.
  8. Remove to a plate, spoon on salsa (if desired), and fold in half.

Enjoy!

I used to wait until after flipping the egg to break the yolk. That kept the yolk in the middle. Now I break it right away. I also use a pot cover to speed up the cooking process.

You can make two or three of these at once if you have a larger skillet or a griddle.

Is this a healthy meal? Well, I don’t think it’s unhealthy. After all, it uses a minimum of added fat and has fresh ingredients such as onions and eggs. Minimizing processed foods is one way to keep your diet healthy — who knows that’s in those “hand made style” tortillas I bought? The way I see it, it’s a lot healthier than breakfast pastries or sugar-filled cereals.

How to make it better? That should be obvious: skip the oil/spray and sauté the onions/scallions with some chopped bacon. Now we’re talking.