The truth about farm work? I could paint a pretty picture for you by telling you that it’s rewarding, an experience, a chance to live the country life and see the beauty of the Australian outback..I wouldn’t be lying…but neither would I be telling the whole truth.
I read a heartbreaking article recently about breaking the spirits of baby elephants for a life in the tourism industry. I’m perhaps being over dramatic and self-pitying, but there have definitely been days during this farming malarkey where myself and my fellow farm girls have felt a tiny bit like those baby elephants!
I apologise for the negativity – it’s not usually my style, more of a glass half full kind of gal really – but for the sake of everyone who has served their Aussie farming time I want to show the reality of it, which means the highs and the lows.
So, you may ask, how and why on earth did I end up working on an Australian farm? I have frequently asked the same question. When I landed in Australia last October it was courtesy of the Australian Government’s one year Working Holiday visa, which cost me around $400 (£200) and allowed me to work whilst here. If you want a second year in Australia, the generous people at Australian immigration require the small price of 3 months or 88 days of your blood, sweat and tears…or ‘regional work’ as they phrase it. Oh, and another $400 too. Cat and I only intended being here for about 2 and a half months (ha!) so the one year visa was all fine and dandy…well we all know how that worked out! Not only did we start extending our travels more and more, we also started thinking that it would be rude not to give ourselves the option of a second year.
We initially left Sydney in mid-February to get started on our farm work and headed up to Bundaberg, just north of Brisbane. In all honesty we hadn’t put much research into the decision and this was to be ‘Lesson 1 in farming’ – the chances of just picking a place, heading there and actually finding work without checking the time of the year and harvest times, asking other backpackers for recommendations and ringing countless blunt and cranky working hostel owners is very slim. It turned out there was no work at the time in Bundaberg, and so I ended up back in Sydney and Cat on Magnetic Island.
Our second attempt came mid-April when, after fractionally more planning, myself, Cat, Hannah, Danielle and Louise headed up to Childers, just south of Bundaberg. The girls flew from Sydney to Brisbane and then got a coach to Childers. Meanwhile, I had decided to do it by coach the entire way to save money, which meant an 18 hour trip – clearly my father’s daughter. Note to self: even if it does save money, 18 hours of travelling just hours after having three new tattoos in awkward places is not a wise idea. Our friends from Sydney – Ben, Tom, Rick and Ieuan – were already in Childers, and when we’d rung the hostel owner we were told that if we arrived there would be work within a couple of weeks. ‘Lesson 2 in farming’ – do not heavily rely on the word of a working hostel owner; they will not feel guilty if you’re sat waiting for work for 6 weeks whilst lining their pockets with rent. This leads nicely into ‘Lesson 3 in farming’ – don’t presume you’ll arrive and start working immediately, if you do you’re lucky. Arriving skint, waiting for work, getting in debt with rent and having to do a runner in the middle of the night is a regular occurrence.
A week after arriving in Childers and the only work had been a day of picking cherry tomatoes at the rate of $3 a bucket; 3 hours in and only $10 richer we walked – that job wouldn’t have even covered rent. After being told other work could be 6 weeks away we started looking around for somewhere else. Our roomie and friend from Bondi, Mitch, had just arrived in Bowen, North Queensland and started work immediately. His eagerness to convince us to head to Bowen might have had a lot to do with his feelings for Danielle but it still sounded more promising than cherry tomato slave labour (Mitch if you read this don’t kill me, I’ll forever love you for saving us from Childers!). Danielle and Cat were going to go up there first with Hannah, Louise and I following a week later. Well as my parents say, the plan is there is no plan and if there is a plan it’s going to change…change it did; I managed to crash the van of the hostel owner in Childers and was told to pay the $1000 repairs or pack my bag and leave…I joined Danielle and Cat on the coach to Bowen that night.
The day I arrived in Bowen I had to spend the afternoon wandering around the town wasting time. All I can say is that ‘The Truman Show’ shouldn’t have spent money on a set, they should have just filmed it in Bowen, genuinely. The blockbuster ‘Australia’ actually did exactly that and this fact, along with the Giant Mango on the way into town which was once bizarrely stolen, are Bowen’s biggest claims to fame.
Bowen is a town with a population of about 10,000 situated 2 hours south of Townsville on the East Coast. It has the good fortune of being sat at the top of the Whitsunday Islands, a collection of 74 islands dotted just off the East Coast with crystal clear, turquoise waters, and also having the Great Barrier Reef on its doorstep! Airlie Beach, known as the gateway to the Whitsundays and a busy backpacker and sailing town, is also just 45 minutes down the road which, in Australia, counts as right next door. Not a bad place to be doing our farming I guess! Only problem for us was that we were 2.5km out of town, even further from Bowen’s beaches and had limited car access. This didn’t stop us exploring though.
Whilst I may have done a pretty good job of bigging up the surrounding Whitsundays region, please do not be fooled – Bowen itself as a town is pure hillbilly-ville with absolutely nothing to do and consequently a serious crystal meth problem…a full set of teeth was few and far between.
After a two and a half week wait the shed we were waiting for opened, and a week before my 24th birthday I had the delight of becoming a green bean packing shed girl at a farm. The first week produced tears for a few and the kind of backache I didn’t expect to experience till my eighties. We were greeted on the first morning by the woman who would spend the next three months trying to break us by bullying and belittling us before finally deciding we’d proved ourselves. She was our supervisor and she was also a twisted alcoholic with breath that could floor you from the other side of the shed, a vicious tongue and a witches cackle to match. She also had a tendency to tell us when her late husband’s funeral song was playing in the background, a remark that none of us ever knew how to respond to.
The work itself wasn’t any better than the supervisor. In terms of the pain, that was something we would learn to cope with; the boredom, repetition and monotony though, not so much. There were a few different jobs. First there was the trough girl who operated the truck winch and the hopper to push the beans into the trough (basically a huge bath for beans with plenty of grasshoppers, the occasional snake and even a dead kangaroo), before pushing them up the conveyor belt. Then there were the four conveyor belts with 3-4 girls on each who had to pick out all the ‘bad beans’ – never thought that this would become an area of expertise for us, sad but true. At the end of the conveyor belts one of us would be stood with styrene boxes (did I mention Aussies shorten EVERYTHING) to pack the beans into. Packing beans into boxes, sounds pretty straightforward. Not when its a tsunami of beans overflowing out of the next box before you’ve even sent the last one down to the scales, never mind the fact that you have to also try to get rid of any remaining ‘bad beans’, make the top look neat and make sure each box is as close to 10.3kg as possible…because you know my hands are a working pair of scales. Boxes was the most dreaded job; mental breakdowns on boxes were a daily occurrence. The final job was on scales where the lucky girl would have boxes from all four conveyer belts flying down to them where they had to weigh them, correct the weights and tidy up the boxes.
There you have it, a day in the life of a bean shed worker; try 88 of them. Or 89 in my case. The 3 months vs 88 days was a sore point in the bean shed – whether we had to do 3 months from start date to end date with days off included, or 88 actual working days with days off not counted. Our shed boss, Karole, was insisting we had to do 88 actual working days and wouldn’t sign us off before that. In the end Danielle rang the Australian immigration office to get a conclusive answer. Unfortunately it was a conclusively unhelpful answer – if you are on the same farm the whole time you technically only need to do 3 months from start date to finish date, days off included, however ultimately Australian immigration has no control over the farmers and if they don’t want to sign you off before 88 days there’s not a whole lot you can do. Cheers mate. ‘Lesson 4 in farming’ – don’t expect anyone to give a shit. Swiftly followed by ‘Lesson 5 in farming’ – don’t wait till 9 months into your first year visa to start your farm work.
The 89 days did have its highs and lows. The first three weeks, or whenever it was your turn as Leslie’s verbal punchbag, were usually the low points. Or if you were Daytona and Jodie and incapable of functioning on a hangover, then hangover days spent trying not to get fired and being tested by Leslie were probably the worst. For some of us, Saturday hangover mornings in work were probably the best days; arriving in work still intoxicated with a whole load of gossip from the drunken antics of the night before to discuss while stood at the belt. We were threatened with dismissal if we came to work drunk or hungover more times than I can remember, Daytona and Jodie even made it all the way to final warnings, which was amusing considering two of the locals who worked with us. Donna, a bean shed veteran of 8 years (seriously?!), was permanently stoned or using her boyfriends medication and Katrina, aka Crackhead, was a 42 year old crystal meth addict who looked 65 and consistently turned up to work high. Both of them provided unintentional entertainment, from Donna’s stoned, nonsensical ramblings to Crackhead’s full body twitches and muttering. Crackhead even tried to sell poor Louise ice at one point, even persistently turning up outside our hostel much to Louise’s distress and everyone’s entertainment. ‘Lesson 6 in farming’ – you will be treated differently to locals, locals will regard you as scum.
Not everyone had the misfortune of working in the bean shed, there were some people in the hostel who genuinely enjoyed going to work! As a general rule it’s mostly girls employed in packing sheds, with one or two guys to do the heavy lifting, and it’s mostly guys employed to do the picking. There were exceptions to this though and the few girls who managed to bag an outdoors job were the envy of all of us! It was hard work without a doubt but seemed to have more variety and fun than a packing shed job. The ultimate job seemed to be planting, but these were few and far between – it involved sitting on the back of a tractor, usually with a mate, or with headphones in, enjoying the sun and fresh air and dropping seedlings at intervals. One of the bonuses of living in a farming working hostel was variety of farms worked on and so the amount of free, fresh food; I now resent having to actually ever pay for a watermelon, capsicum (pepper), eggplant (aubergines), pumpkin or tomato ever again. Green beans, for the moment at least, I never want to lay eyes on again.
Our main saviour which kept us semi-sane during our farming was undoubtedly the hostel, or more specifically, the people in it. When we first arrived there was only a handful of us, which grew to nearly 100 at the busiest point. It made work so much easier working with your best friends and then going home to more friends. Friday nights became the highlight of our week; funny enough, a group of backpackers in their twenties working long manual labour hours and living together in the middle of nowhere with a bar on site is a recipe for some crazy drunken antics. ‘Let’s get looooose’ became the motto yelled on the buses home from work every Friday night/every night we had the next day off. The Grand View, Bowen’s oh so hip and happening watering hole, became our drinking place when we actually escaped the hostel. It was actually not half bad to say it was in Bowen, but it seemed to do crazy things to us – most people don’t remember their first visit and it took me at least three visits before I actually remembered what it looked like the next day…I blame the $22 bottles of sparklingly wine. These Friday nights/any night of the week usually (I mean always) ended with a group trip to the Caltex petrol station next door to the hostel whose diner conveniently sold chips, cheese and gravy. Most of us woke up with the remains of a chips, cheese and gravy pot next to our bed on a Saturday morning…or even spooning a pot of peanut butter in my case!
Despite my ranting, Bowen was not a bad spot to be for farming – it’s surrounded by beautiful beaches and it’s winter cold snap lasted a whole two weeks. In the couple of weeks we were waiting for work to start and on some of our days off we made the most of the surrounding area, having beers and BBQs on some of the beaches or next to the lagoon, walking up to lookout points, drinking in the good old Grand View, chilling round the northern Whitsunday Islands on our boss’s boat and even hitchhiking to Airlie beach for some much needed civilisation. We did the Airlie trip a couple of times, one of which resulted in being picked up by the owner of one of the boats which did the Whitsunday Island trips out of Airlie, a fact which worked out very well for me in the end…but that’s another post!
The day that our boss Joey took us on his boat has to be the best day of the entire time farming. Obviously I would say that when there’s boats involved, but it honestly was that good and I reckon the others would agree. We arrived at the boat at half 9 and as the boat left the slip 5 minutes later the first ciders were cracked open. The sky and the sea couldn’t have been bluer if they tried, and we couldn’t have felt further from the bean shed as we headed over to Gloucester Island. After a couple of unspoilt and deserted beaches we headed across the channel to Montes Resort at Hydeaway Beach, at the end of the mainland peninsula. The staff knew our boss Joey extremely well, which might have something to do with the fact he spends the entire four months of the year that he’s not farming, propping up the bar here and running up $10,000 bar tabs. Did I mention rural Australia has a drinking problem? Joey was beyond generous to us and treated us pretty much the opposite to how other locals treated us – not only did he take us out on his boat that day he also insisted on buying us a cocktail at the bar and ordering food for the table. He also bought himself plenty of drinks, and consequently the very drunken return trip was eventful, featuring a very merry Hannah at the wheel, a fish hook through the sole of my right foot and an egg-like lump on my left
So, four and a half months after arriving I finally left Bowen. Was it physically and emotionally draining, isolated and monotonous? Sure. Was it rewarding, an experience and a chance to see rural Australia? Yes, it definitely was. It honestly was four and a half months of emotional highs and lows, drama and boredom, fun and frustration…but I’m so glad I did it. Special mention has to go out to the original Bean Bitches – Daisy, Brooke, Daytona, Cat, Danielle, Hannah, Louise, Posh Sophie, Little Sophie, Jodie and Ste – it may sound cheesy, but we got each other through it and made friendships for life. Now just excuse us whilst we all try and adjust back to civilisation and normal life!