Travelling memories: farmwork in Australia

I never really talked about my farmwork experience in any of my previous articles, but this was such a huge part of my Australian adventure that I had to write something about it. I still have today this kind of love-hate relationship with this period of my life: I mostly hated it at that time, but I often missed it afterwards. But let’s get back to the beginning: what does farmwork consist in exactly? How did I end up doing it? Here’s a detailed explanation combined with the story of my personal experience.

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1/ What is the farmwork?

A lot of backpackers in Australia have a common goal: obtaining a second-year visa. The Working Holiday Visa (WHV) that concerns young adults up to 30 or 35 years-old from many countries around the world is valid for 12 months only, starting from the day you enter Australia. But there’s a way to extend it for a second year: doing 88 days of farmwork.

To be 100% accurate, it’s not the only option. You can also choose to work in a mine, or for some specific visas (for Americans for example) you can do what’s called “regional work”: find a job in a remote place of Australia, in the northern half of the country. But the most common way to get it, and the only one that I’m going to talk about here is the farmwork.

Other precision: it is also now possible to get a third-year visa, if you’re working 6 months in a farm during your second year.

What exactly does it consist in? You have to work in a farm (picking fruits or vegetables most of the time, but it can also be a dairy or cattle farming for example) for at least 88 days, or three consecutive months if you’re staying in the same place. Concretely, you could work for example 20 days somewhere, 30 in a second place and 38 in a third one to reach that total, or even one day in 88 different farms! But the easiest way is to stay in the same place because it would be possible then to include your days off in the total, while you can only count your actual working days if you’re moving from one farm to another. Are you still following me? Maybe the two examples below will help you understand.

farmwork-working-example-english

In these examples, it took three more weeks for number one to complete his farmwork than for number two, who also worked 26 days less!

There’s a second restriction but this one is less important: you can only work in rural Australia, which means that jobs in the main urban areas around Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane don’t count. But there aren’t many farms in these areas anyway…

As it takes at least a quarter of the time you’re allowed to stay in Australia with your WHV, you have to begin your farmwork relatively early if you want to finish it in time. I personally started to look for a job after less than 2 months in the country. I got lucky (or at least that’s what I thought then): I found one after only a couple of days of online searching and phone calls, thanks to a contact that a guy gave me in the hostel I was staying at in Brisbane.

2/ Strawberry picking in Queensland

This was the first job I ever found in Australia; but it quickly turned out to be the worst. I was working in a strawberry farm, which meant picking strawberries all day long, from 6am until the end of the afternoon, 6 days a week. I was sitting on some sort of heavy and not conveniently manageable trolley which was open in the middle, with legs on both sides of rows of strawberries, pushing on my feet to move backwards while being constantly bent over the ground to pick the berries before putting them in two baskets in front of me: one for the good-looking strawberries, the other one for the ugliest.

farmwork-australia-strawberry-picking

farmwork-australia-strawberriesIt was extremely hard physically speaking. I was completely exhausted at the end of the day, waiting for one single thing: going to bed. The wage was very low: we were paid for the amount of fruit we picked, with a lower rate for the ugly-looking strawberries. I don’t remember the exact rate, but what I remember is that in the end I earned about 600 Australian dollars for 60h of work during the week, so more or less 10$/hour. By comparison, the minimum wage in Australia if you’re paid by the hour is 21.6$… One more thing: the owners of the farms and the supervisors were either rude and impolite or just didn’t care about us at all. Apart from a weird and not very friendly French guy, his Swedish girlfriend and a taciturn Italian guy, I was the only European: all the other workers were Asian and most of them didn’t speak English at all which made communication very difficult. At the end of the day, I drove back to my campsite a few kilometers away, where I slept in my van next to a group of French people who were facing the same difficulties in other farms of the area. It was a little bit comforting to share our stories with a beer around a campfire.

farmwork-australia-strawberry-picking-campsite

I left after two weeks, not so sure if I really wanted to complete my 88 days of farmwork.

At least the area where I was working was beautiful. I was 50km north of Brisbane, close to Noosa and the Sunshine Coast, directly next to the gorgeous Glass House Mountains and not far from Bribie Island. I even uploaded a gallery of pictures of all these places, have a look!

3/ Second attempt

Four months later, my decision was taken: I loved being in Australia so much that I was ready to find a farm and to leave Melbourne for a while. My first experience taught me that picking strawberries or any kind of fruit or vegetable that grows from the ground was extremely difficult, so I looked for an orchard instead. It wasn’t very difficult to find one as there are a lot of them in the north of Victoria. In the beginning of February 2017, I left Melbourne and drove to the north to a farm literally in the middle of nowhere, close to the border with New South Wales. It was such a remote place that I hardly had any phone reception at all. The pictures below show the kitchen area and the cabins where I was going to live, as well as the bathroom/toilets building…

Unfortunately, this second experience wasn’t much better than the first one. Not because of the job itself: I was driving a cherry picker and harvesting peaches that I put in a bag in front of me. When the bag was full, I emptied it in a large wooden bin. The most complicated part was to steer the cherry picker between the trees which wasn’t easy at all! The problem was that I only worked a few hours during the entire week I spent at the orchard…

farmwork-australia-peach-picking

I left Melbourne on a Monday and was supposed to start working the next day. Due to various excuses of the owner of the farm (rain on the previous days, a problem on his truck, that he told me at the very last minute…), I actually only started working on the Thursday, and not for long: a heat wave hit the south-east of Australia at the same time, with temperatures reaching 44°C. Because of that, we stopped working at 2pm and I was told to come back on Saturday, when temperatures would have cooled down a bit. It seemed logical so I didn’t complain and spent my Friday swimming in the Murray River which marks the border between Victoria and New South Wales. I was up super early and ready to start working again on the Saturday morning, but when I arrived at the orchard, no one was there: once again, nobody had warned me, and that was another day lost.

That was too much for me. I spent the rest of the day searching for a different place to work and eventually found one near the city of Shepparton, 50 kilometers away and a bit closer to Melbourne. I drove there on the Sunday and started working on the following Monday.

4/ Apples and pears

That’s how I ended up in a caravan park in Mooroopna, West of Shepparton. I quickly found out that this place was (and probably still is) quite famous in the backpackers’ world. The campsite was ruled by a woman who had a contract with all the local farmers. Every time one of them needed workers in his orchard, she sent him backpackers. I still remember the name of these farms: Pogue (everyone hated working there), Ardmona, Mars and its super friendly supervisor Kevin… It might sound like a good deal: we were provided a job every day, it was possible to stay for three consecutive months and the work by itself wasn’t too hard. But in the end, it was a great deal mostly for her and for the farmers: they could count on an inexhaustible source of workers while she was collecting a commission on our backs, and if we wanted to keep our job, we had to stay at her campsite, where the prices were ridiculously high: 100$/person/week to sleep in your own van or in a tent, 150$ to live in a little cabin with three other people. You could find a shared bedroom in the middle of Melbourne for that price! The car she drove proved that it was a lucrative business

farmwork-australia-apple-picking

You might wonder why I decided to stay there, even after understanding the downside of it. There are a few reasons. It was easy and comfortable, especially compared to my previous farmwork experiences. I was able to decide when to take a break or when to stop working in the afternoon, I didn’t have to wait for an angry supervisor to give me the permission. I knew that I was going to work continuously for three months and that in the end I would get all the paperwork signed to secure my second-year visa. Picking pears and apples was much better than picking strawberries: at least I didn’t have to bend the entire day! The pay wasn’t great but I still managed to make decent money. And finally, what really made the big difference and convinced me to stay were the fantastic people I met at the caravan park, but I’ll get back to this later.

farmwork-australia-apples-2The job was the same as the peach picking in the previous farm, but with pears at first and after a few weeks apples. We all had our own picking bag in front of us that we filled with fruits before emptying it in a bin. The only difference was that there wasn’t any cherry picker so we had to carry a relatively heavy ladder with us to reach the top of the trees. It wasn’t super safe and I fell once, but luckily without hurting myself.

I estimated that a bin could contain more or less 2,000 apples. We were paid around 30 to 35$ each time we filled one, which means that we received… about 2 cents per fruit! At first, it took me almost 3 hours for one bin and I couldn’t fill more than 2 or 3 in one day, but in the end I got really faster: I often managed to fill up 5 bins in one day, and it took me less than an hour and a half for one. During the three months I stayed there, I earned between 600 and 900$ per week, for 40 to 50 hours of work. Not too bad, but nothing compared to what some people could do. Among all the foreign backpackers, there was also a young Australian guy at the campsite, about 25 years old. He earned his living by travelling around the country with his van, offering his services to farms and orchards on his way. And it worked: he was able to fill up to 9 bins in one day!

5/ Farmwork family in Mooroopna

And then suddenly, in the middle of May, it was over. I had been waiting for that moment for weeks: I was fed up with working outside in the heat of the afternoon or in the cold of the early morning, I missed Melbourne and I was looking forward to be on the road again with my van. But when I left the caravan park, I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic: I was leaving behind me extraordinary memories of the moments I spent with other backpackers from all around the world. We were like a family, supporting each other during the rough moments and appreciating even more all the little things that happened to us: the Thursday evening poker tournament, the weekly roasted chicken and fries from the shop across the road, movie or game nights, shared dinners, nights of stargazing and gorgeous sunrises or sunsets like I never saw outside of Australia.

Being there wasn’t easy for any of us, and that’s what brought us so close to each other (that and the fact that we shared a 20 square meter cabin at four people). We all had our own ritual to preserve our private space: that girl was drawing and writing, that guy was taking online English lessons, that other girl was learning knitting and I personally always had my relaxing beer-and-cookie moment straight after work. But we were also constantly together and shared everything: our emotions, our sadness or anger when we had a bad day at work, our travelling stories… We were brothers and sisters, and sometimes parents for the new ones that arrived at the caravan park to teach them how things were here. I never experienced anything comparable at any other moments of my life, and that’s why sometimes I wish it had never ended. I’ll never forget my three months in Mooropna and all the people I met there!

farmwork-australia-mooroopna-campsite

I dedicate this article to Maikel, Maya, Marina, Matt, Marco, Josh, Elsa, Lisa & Daniel, Lisa, Anton, Pablo, Bela, Falk, Carla, Tiphaine & Alex, Emilie & Jerry, Arthur, Thomas, Charlotte, Jodie, Tonisha, Adam, Illar and all the others.

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